Friday, June 01, 2007

Towards A Socialist Perspective (Part 2)

Is This The Worst Of All Possible Worlds?

If indeed the world was dominated only by the negatives which I outlined in Part 1, then our response as socialists on the way forward would need to be based upon an extreme form of pessimism. I will argue later than there are other important (and more optimistic) factors that we need to take into account. But for now just let us concentrate upon where the above tale of unqualified (yet real) miseries leads many of our comrades.

As I mentioned earlier there seem to be three main entrapments which we can fall into. I am not claiming that these are conscious moves by those concerned, but they seem to me to explain much of what has been taking place.

(a) Accommodation

First, there are those who have attempted to accommodate to what is seen as the new reality, confining their socialist vision to nibbling at the edge of developments. As free enterprise is correctly seen as being at the cutting edge of world activities, then the best some come to hope for is to moderate its excesses and dangers. In British terms, socialists are then driven into seeking an accommodation with a New Labour approach which seeks to marry the freedoms of the market with attempts at social justice. Whilst this approach isn't seen as ideal, it is felt that there is little more that can be done.

I feel that this is at least a partial explanation as to why much of what used to be called the soft left in Labour Politics accommodated so readily to many of the norms of Blair's third way. This development should not just be explained in terms of the careerist interests of Labour's politicians and fears of returning to the electoral wilderness of the years before 1997. There was also a sea change in aspirations.

(b) Smash and Grab

Secondly, there are those who in despair look for a dramatic means of breaking out of the mess they see the world as being trapped into. As the forces seen as creating the depth of the new problems are globalised capitalism and western imperialism, these need to be smashed in order to remove the blockage on socialism. The problem is then one of finding urgent and dramatic means to achieve this aim.

The tactic is then either to support or at least not to fail to oppose, countervailing forces whose rage and interests lead them to engage in conflict with the twin powers of capital and imperialism. Militant Islamic fundamentalists, Milosevic and his former regime, along with anti-Zionist terrorists are all viewed in this light.

Furthermore, it is felt that a serious crack in the controls exercised by the twin powers will open the opportunity for the left to come out of the sidelines of politics. It is like siding with the Ayatollah in order to smash the Shah, in the hope that a third form of politics will somehow emerge. For once there is a break through, then it is assumed that the scales will fall from the eyes of working people and their families as in the dislocation socialists grab the microphones.

Whilst this type of approach keeps a form of socialist vision alive, it also strangely turns a blind eye to the anti-democratic, nihilistic and destructive nature of those forces who are given an open cheque. It is an approach in which a "left" is willing to countenance political space for forms of fascism.

(c) Into Apathy

The third response is that of apathy about politics generally. If the world is seen to be in the grip of the forces I described in Part 1, then some feel that nothing can be done about this in terms of an effective overall strategy. This approach can influence those who see the weaknesses in (a) and (b) above, but who see little more. Many former activists have slipped into this form of coma.

At best, they see isolated single issue campaign's as perhaps bringing some temporary aid to destitute people. As many see there is a threat from global warming, efforts for a green agenda can then be put to the fore. For we can't ever begin to advance a wider vision, whilst the norms of existence are felt to be under threat.

An Extra Dimension

Whilst I grant that the grounds for the above forms of pessimism are strong, there is another side of the coin that is important for us to consider.

The forces of international capital and western imperialism have a complex relationship to the operation of democracy. It is a notion which has a form of attraction to them for two main reasons. First, the checks and balances of democratic operations are often seen as a political equivalent to the competitive economic forces, and are seen to act as their guarantor. Secondly, democracies which can be cajoled into running market systems provide a means of sharing out the spoils of such operations.

Yet even dodgy democracies offer openings for countervailing forces. So there is a way into social transformation for socialists - it is called democracy.

The Democratic Road

Democratic practices, a concern for civil liberties, acts of human compassion, comradely actions, respect for intellectual rigour and empathy, all make their impact daily upon how the world functions. Indeed more nations than ever lay claim to the operation of democratic regimes. Whilst in an interconnected world we could not survive for a day if we could not trust the skills and dedication to duty of those we depend upon when travelling, shopping, being entertained and even blogging.

There are, of course, numbers of mainly sham democracies, as is very much the case with Nigeria today. Just as there are minorities of crooks and twisters. Whilst even recognisable democratic systems limit their operations at best to political checks and balances and ignore the need to extend democratic arrangements into the economic sphere. But just because we have shortcoming does not mean that we should dismiss achievements - such as the struggles for numerous civil liberties.

At least many nations (especially in the much maligned West) provide a market place for political mobilisation, argumentation and struggles for the people's vote. This is the ground on which to campaign and struggle for more of the same and to defend what has been achieved. The power of nations such as America can certainly be used to distort the conditions under which poorer and dependent nations operate. Yet the franchise, freedoms of expression, the separation of powers and rights that can be defended in Courts can all reign in and contain such abuses of power. If this isn't done sufficiently or well enough, then it involves rights which daily people use against those who abuse them.

International institutions from the European Union to the United Nations have their own inbuilt democratic deficits, but they also provide avenues to seek to overcome their shortcomings.

Throughout the world, bodies strive to gain the rights to assemble, organise and be part of their political nation. These include women's rights organisations, youth structures, trade unions and masses of other interest groups pressing for improved rights and keenly using what they have struggled to acquire. Even in the midst of the daily horrors of Baghdad, we see people rush to help the injured and to comfort the bereaved. Iraqi's join Trade Unions, march in May Day Rallies, participate where possible in cultural and sporting events and even attend Communist festivals. Even if too few are able to do these things, it strike me that they should have our admiration and backing. The alternatives are apathy or a misguided "understanding" of the causes of their murderers.

In the more affluent West, people readily help famine relief programmes and red nose days. Even if they tend to need the media and entertainers to alert them to specific problems and often fail to link their charitable actions to the world's major shortcomings, they reveal the humane and human potential which exists in the world and can be developed.

Whilst financial and commercial interests find it easy to switch resources and gain power by a click of the keys, socially progressive interests seek to further and fashion countervailing powers. The unsung and (in media terms) unseen international network of Trade Unions in mutual help, being a case in point.

When it comes to giving practical and moral support, I have no doubt that it is the bodies I mention above that should have our collective support and not those who seek to kill and destroy them, via terrorist and nihilistic activity. And even if the pessimists case is strong and is felt to outweigh the above case, then I still have no doubt as to which side socialists should be on.

When Weaknesses Become Strengths

Socialist and Labour Movements have always developed alongside the very areas of authority which they have attempted to challenge and transform. So in Britain struggles took place for the franchise, Trade Union rights, Labour to subsume Lib-Labism (which was an early version of the New Labour ideology) and in struggles for full employment and a welfare state. Through the exercise of countervailing powers to those of capitalist interests, there was a period in which the wider Labour Movement came to gain ground in the political and economic system to significantly influence some of the powers that had at one time been operated roughshod over its interests. The very strengths that at one time were exercised over it, came to be used by it for the general benefit.

Today, the technological revolution has turned many powers towards serving the interests of capital. Earlier I describe ways in which this is done. But the very technology which is often used for exploitative purposes, could also come to be used for the purposes for which socialists strive. These include - interconnected planning, the sharing of resources, speed of communication, modern variants of direct face-to-face democracy (at least on screens), knowledgeable societies, clicking into quick action for those in need and developing computer technology for mutual support.

Yet first, we need to use the democratic avenues I described earlier (especially the possibilities of economic democracy) to build up countervailing powers within the operations of the new technology. But the new technology can not just be handed over for socialist purposes just by the click of one of its switches. We are in for what Raymond Williams used to call a "long revolution".

Our Own Backyard

(a) A Matter Of Meaning

Given the pessimistic scene I covered in Part 1 and the more optimistic arguments I have put forward above in Part 2, I will move on in Part 3 to relate these together in arguing what I see as being the best way forward for modern day socialism. But before I do this, I need to describe a further change which the technological revolution has brought to Britain as it seems to me to have an important impact upon the conclusions I will draw.

The technological revolution has had a considerable impact upon the nature of working class communities. But first let me explain how I am using terminology about social class.

I am not using the term to categorise people essentially by their relationship to the means of production. Under this form of categorisation, people are divided into those who own the means of production and those who are obliged to sell their labour power to operate the means of production. People are placed into the latter category irrespective of whether the labour power they sell is muscle power, a manual skill or is termed "brain power".

In a society in which the relationship to the means of production is fairly clear cut, so that one group dominates wealth, educational opportunities and a privileged social background and the other group lacks these; then the above form of categorisation has its use. But whilst there are still clear distinctions around us today , there is a great blurring in the middle as some people (after a life long mortgage) own their property, others may have savings which may be invested and others have acquired good educational qualifications along the way. Also top management may have a considerable say over the running of an enterprise without being involved in its ownership.

So it is probably as well not to be so precise about the boundaries of social class, but to recognise that wealth (which can come basically from earnings), social background, power and educational connections and life styles, all contribute to the making of such categorisations.

When, however, we normally use the term "working class" we are referring to those who fall at the more deprived end of my above loose categorisation.

(b) The Working Class

Prior to the technological revolution, the working class on the whole lived in settled and closely knit communities. The paid workers were mainly men and they often were able to walk to work at their local pit, shipyard, steel works or factory. Their leisure pursuits were shared with others in their locality; be it at the local chapel, the workingmen's club or in playing and watching a nearby football team. Local shops catered almost exclusively for local people.

With the closure of many of the above areas of employment, this pattern changed dramatically. Men (and now women) normally travel to work and for many of their leisure and shopping activities. Whilst jobs are less likely to be set up for life.

Friendship networks often now develop outside of local living areas. These tend to link in with new work patterns, holiday acquaintanceships and in shared leisure interests. Or they are replaced by a well of loneliness as families and friends move out into an increasingly rootless society.

Communal, co-operative (sometimes literally) and sharing values dominated the old environment. Labourism and socialism had natural homes in such circumstances and were often self generating. Much of this is now (at best) residual.

At the very time that Bennite socialism was making its appeal for the soul of the Labour Party, technological change was starting to bite. The defeat of the Miners' Strike in 1984 and the subsequent continuing decline of the Coal Industry were symbolic of the move away from this traditional form of industrial and political struggle.

The working class did not disappear as some academics more or less predicted, but it did change its behaviour patterns and its norms of behaviour. When Tony Blair became Labour's Leader, he appreciated that his Party's electoral victory could no longer be based on an appeal to the old form of working class communities as these were rapidly being transformed.

His mistakes from a socialist perspective were (a) to brutally aid the change they were experiencing instead of easing forms of transition by, for instance, slowing down factory closures and (b) to appeal to cross-class interests at their lowest common denominator, rather than raising across-the-board aspirations for the development of a socially just society based on common humanitarian values.

Unfortunately, no significant Left Labour trend emerged either to challenge the New Labour philosophy nor to transform the shrinking Bennite tendency. The latter even offered a cover for the activities of the Provisional IRA in ways which later reflected a hard left accommodation to Islamic terrorism.

With New Labour being a form of what Will Hutton has recently called "liberal Labour", the old visions of a labourism resting on methodist forms of morality, trade union collectivism and gradualist socialism, were too readily subsumed. Whilst New Labour made no effort to raise people's nobler aspirations. Its appeal was to self-centred improvement. This meant that social well-being (when space was found for it) could only be furthered by stealth. This did not carry people along with such processes, nor inspire them to press for more.

But as I will argue in my concluding Part 3 we should neither despair, nor look for easy options.

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