I was originally going to publish this as a single post, but am too tired to finish this now and don’t know when I’ll get back to it, so I will split into two parts in order to put something out today. Once complete, I may join the two parts together in a single post. For now, here’s part one:
Part 1: The woes of the left and the space for market socialism
The left, in Scotland, in Britain, in Europe, is in crisis. It is not the case that the forward march of time has induced a Hegelian Aufhebung, and rendered socialist ideas irrelevant. But there is a deep confusion over where to go next. The left is split between those who want to reheat the socialism or social democracy of the past, and those who judge the task of reform too hard or the socialist moment to have passed and assert the left should turn instead to liberalism. Both these camps are dangerous. History has not transcended socialism; but socialism must adapt to meet the present.
The current rift in the Labour party, between the “hard left” and the “Blairites”, reminds many commentators of the divisions of the past. It shouldn’t. The battles of the past were between people with many genuinely good and coherent ideas who were too doctrinaire to compromise with the electorate, and more flexible characters who set their agenda – often including very bold ideas – per their instincts. Today’s camps are hollow imitations.
Today’s war is waged by two sets of narcissists, neither of whom are good for the Labour party, the left or the country. On the one hand there are those, chief amongst them Jeremy Corbyn, who care more about being socialists than they do about actual socialism. Corbyn does not have a coherent ideology – his policy is a lucky-bag of grievance, identity and sentimentalism. His championing of progressive causes is somewhat undermined by the fact that he is more of a contrarian than a crusader. His primary goal is never to achieve what is moral, but the moral high ground – and is in this sense more of a liberal than a genuine socialist.
Just as bad however are the (in denial) identity centrists, who like the sound of electability, but couldn’t for the life of them show you what it looks like. They convince themselves that being “moderates” is enough to make them winners, and religiously sculpt their image in that vein. Their decisions are not led by sound instincts about what is best for the country; they largely lack ideas, and disbar any bold ones – even good ones that are popular – for fear of looking too “radical”. Theirs is not an electable agenda, but an agenda pruned of all ambition. Tony Blair, to give him his due, was a genuine centrist with many bold ideas – but he was elected in a different time in a radically different country. The solution to winning in 2020 and beyond lies no more in 1997 than it does in the 1970/80s.
Socialism today is concerned too much with tribes, and too little with people. The mission of socialism is not to represent the unfortunate, but to empower them. To lift them up above their situation and give them a hand in their own destiny. It’s not enough to know what it feels like, to speak with the right accent or to feel angry on “their” behalf; socialists must offer not just sympathy, but solutions.
A lot of people on the left like to talk about ideological purity; there is no such thing as “pure socialism”. Socialism is not the task – fascist-like – of divining the perfect harmonious structure for society and the economy, then constructing a utopia. There are no utopias. There is no such thing as the “achievement of socialism”. Socialism is a war. It is about constantly choosing and fighting the right battles as and when they arise. Too many ideologues, on both the left and the right, concern themselves with designing the perfect country on paper; they think if they can just get the system right, everything will magically fall into place. Reality doesn’t work like that. You have to respect the facts on the ground and govern the country you’ve actually got. The flow of time will always breed new inequalities of outcome. It will always open up new apertures for the opportunism of power. Socialism is about responding to them as they appear. But delivering socialism is also about choice. It involves compromise. It can involve – God forbid! – listening to the people in order to achieve power. It involves tempering what is desirable with what is realistically achievable.
Though many would-be liberals viewed it merely as an opportunity to jettison the socialist baggage that embarrassed them, the most sincere arguments for social democracy were always those still voiced in Marxist terms. Likewise, though we must accept that social democracy has run its course, the next incarnation of socialism cannot be developed by those who refuse to acknowledge that in their turn both industrial socialism and social democracy were credible solutions for their times.
The social democratic model of private ownership plus regulation worked when the economy was largely still embedded within the nation state. It meant consumers could reap the rewards of a competitive market system whilst still enjoying socially mandated benefits and protections and insulation from the business cycle. In a globalised world where states compete with each other for investment, this can no longer work. Socialism must accept the reality that regulation on a national level cannot tame an economy that operates on a global one.
There are three options. The first is to attempt to reverse course: to withdraw from global markets, put up barriers to trade, and try desperately to re-embed the economy. Though this may yield limited benefits if done properly, it would by and large be a disaster for the economy – assuming it even proved possible. If one cannot bring the economy back down to the level of national government, the second option is to expand governance to the level of the global economy. Yet attempts at global governance have been made before, and have only been partially successful. Bretton Woods collapsed when America ditched the gold standard; the European Union is a nest of tensions and has already lost its second largest economy; and these are agreements between a limited number of mostly developed countries with similar cultures and values – any system that was truly to tame the global economy would have to have agreement not just from the West and Japan, but also China, India, Brazil, Russia and a plethora of other countries with radically different economies and attitudes to regulation and trade. For practical reasons, we can rule out such an option as de facto impossible.
The third – and only credible – option is market socialism…