Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Towards A Socialist Perspective (Part 1)

The following will appear in three parts.

A Socialist Conundrum

Since at least, the late 20th Century the world has been travelling through a period in which the technological revolution has gained momentum.

In many ways, the impacts it has produced have been quicker and more all-embracing than during the industrial revolution which started out in Britain in the late 18th Century. Yet because the world can seem just to be an up-to-date version of our industrial heritage, it is easy to underestimate the significance of the changes - at least as far as our overall political philosophy is concerned.

When travelling through a period of rapid change, it is difficult to adjust ones understandings, values and interpretations. During the industrial revolution, Adam Smith and Karl Marx came to interpret the changes around them in ways which wide forces responded to, or re-interpreted. In many ways, their alternative approaches still help to shape today's understandings; with Adam Smith's analysis on the need for free enterprise being very much to the fore.

The changes brought upon us by the industrial revolution produced a dramatic contrast with the nature of pre-industrial life. They gave a stimulus to the working out of innovative forms of economic and political analysis which tended to give individuals and movements a sense of direction.

Although the characteristics of the technological revolution is that it churns out academic treatises, popular theories, religious dogmas and blogging chatter in a logarithmic form of progression, it produces little that has universal forms of appeal. Yet it does plenty to feed the fantasies of differing sects throughout the world.

In particular, those of us (to use GDH Cole's past terminology) who feel that our understandings have been "Marx influenced" rather than pure Marxist, find ourselves facing problems in adjusting our understandings to meet current complexities. Even though our position has never been grounded in dogmatic certainty.

But if we take democratic socialism to be about the human values of co-operation, communal activity, democratic participation, collective action, social planning and the exercise of mutual respect for the civil rights of individuals and groups; then today's world can be seen to present a pattern of both fear and hope.

The late Royden Harrison used to point out that under the new technology, the objective means for establishing widespread socialism had never been better. The problem he pointed out, was that the subjective circumstances (of the mix of ideas which people carry around in their heads) had never been worse.

Royden's approach might give us a guide to how democratic socialists can best observe today's world and shape appropriate responses to what we see.

Be Aware And Beware Of Entrapment

The type of pattern of the world which I will now describe is shared (in differing degrees) by many people. It is because many socialists see it as a new form of common sense, that it helps to shape their political attitudes. These responses often, however, fall into three main and differing categories, which differ significantly.

Some seek to accommodate to what they see as the new reality. Others rebel against it and adopt a revolutionary or a nihilistic approach. Whilst others, despair completely and turn either to single issue campaigns or to complete apathy.

As I will show later, I disagree with all of these trends; yet I also believe in the significance of what I am about to outline. It is just that what I will present here, is merely a partial picture of the realities we face. In other words it is to me an accurate explanation of the world around us, but it is also only a partial picture resting an a one-sided diet of examples. Whilst these are truths, they are by no means the whole truth.

The World We Live In

(1) Divided Lives In A Divided World

To start with, we need to be aware that whilst many of us are inside the loop of the operations of the technological revolution, others are outside - although what is happening impacts upon them the most strongly.

The insiders are producers and consumers, whose roles facilitate the functioning of an interconnected world economy. The insiders own basic needs of food, warmth and (at least for the insides of) their shelter, are increasingly drawn from international markets.

With masses of people participating in this interdependent (but conflict ridden) world, others still live in impoverished and mainly self-sufficient village communities. Some such places may currently be relatively conflict free, as in Malawi. Others face massacres and flee war-torn lands, as in Dafur.

Furthermore, such deprived and exploited people have little or no opportunity to discover the hidden hands which influence the local plight they find themselves in.

Those of us who are firmly part of the modern inter-connected world, often have (at least) partial access to travel. Some moving as part of an international labour
market, others under the pressures of being economic migrants. Many are part of a world-wide communications system of the Internet and mobiles. Yet the influences these developments seem to provide are often doubled-edged as influential commercial interests nurture and feed back into such avenues.

(2) Capitalism At The Click Of A Key

Yet capital moves much more quickly than people can. As a result, multi-nationals help to impose their own form of rationality upon the world.

Given access to a labour force who can acquire basic skills, enterprises shift to new and cheaper localities in the global village. For instance, near the port of Maputo in Mozambique an aluminium plant has been established with ease of access to a worldwide network for its output. Apart from cheap and ready labour, it ships in its raw material from Australia and draws its energy needs from a further cheap labour market in terms of coal from neighbouring South Africa.

Yet even such movements of capital in setting up firms and their movement, is put in the shade by the speed of speculative capital. This is by no means confined to dealing in stocks and shares, for with the click of a key currencies are subject to mass speculative actions. This is far from being a lottery, with vunerable economies being destroyed in the process. The money changing hands in currency speculation outstrips that spent in international trade. It was part of the background to the initial break-up of Yugoslavia, for social turmoil follows hard on the heals of economic disruption.

(3) Meeting Created Needs

At the moment, effective and maldistributed economic demand for goods and services comes mainly (but not exclusively) from the Western World. It meets a mixed bag of needs.

In addition to catering for the essentials I mentioned earlier (to which we can add the requirements for most labour to travel-to-work), there are numerous demands which are shaped by advertisers and the norms of acquisitiveness. So our homes are filled with inessentials that are barely used (and can change with alterations in fashion). Then we often over-indulge in the basics. Obesity, drunkenness, wardrobes of barely used clothes and roads crammed unnecessarily with cars are part of the picture. So diseconomies of scale abound - as in road accidents.

Although increasingly we are given more and more choice in the "privileged" world; the choices that proliferate are mainly variations on limited and passing themes.

Worse still the demands being met by the sections of the world who can find the cash or the credit necessary, contribute forcefully to the over-use of the world's resources in minerals and energy; contributing to massive problems of global warming.

(4) Conflict and Confusion

In developing its economic power during the industrial revolution, the West was involved in a scramble for Africa and for Empires on which the Sun would not set. Many colonial nations had their boundaries determined through deals finally struck (often after conflict) amongst Imperial Powers.

Ethnic, tribal, religious and other established communal links were ignored. The subsequent struggles against colonialism, meant that forms of independence were established in which home grown (or imposed) power-elites often came to the fore. These had an interest in holding onto the then established national boundaries (for instance, in opposition to the wishes of the great bulk of the Kurds in contiguous areas of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey).

Where international financial and trading pressures led to economic and social dislocation (as in Rwanda) then the old tribal loyalties came to have new, distorted and horrific consequences.

With the growth of the technological revolution being mainly under the drive of Capital (as exemplified in the free-market roles of the World-Bank and the IMF), new conflicts came into the fore in place of the former Cold War. Although it must always be remembered that hot versions of Cold War hit nations such as Angola.

Economic and military pressures in areas such as the Middle East have intensified modern developments of the ethnic, tribal, communal and religious divides I mentioned earlier.

Whilst Nation States (such as Israel) and Coalitions of States (as over the invasion of Iraq) have furthered their perceived interests and concerns by hi-tech methods of conventional warfare, they have confronted a mixed-bag of combatants formed into a variety of sects. These latter resort to a wide range of methods for struggle, from the intifada and suicide explosions to modern rocket attacks. These struggles can be directed against occupiers, civilian targets, each other or what are seen as Satanic Powers. Numbers organise on a transnational basis and in a loosely inter-connected fashion. Traditional Western-style military (and related) tactics are poorly structured to tackle the new forms of insurgency and disruption.

We also need to be aware that the mixed bag of sects throughout the world who involve themselves in terrorist-style activities are themselves a reflection of a world-wide move into cultural loyalties to sects, from support for football teams people have only ever seen on television to group-identities of race, sex, sexual orientation and general cultural preferences. Whilst not all of these need to be seen as harmful, they need to be seen as a new significant form of social reality.

At the back of all of this complexity there are the dangers of nuclear conflict; which is significantly added to by the proliferation of these weapons and political instability amongst their custodians.

(5) Knitting Together A View Of The World

The news media, much of our literature (fact and fiction) and our general culture often seem to be dominated by the type of drama which appears in a disaster movie - and was exemplified in the events of 9/11 and now in the daily news from Baghdad. Information on these both sells easily and stirs the imagination of the opinion makers. It is thus easy to feel that we live in (or on the verge of) the worst of all possible worlds.

My question now is "how do such feelings and thoughts impinged themselves upon socialist understandings?"

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