Entries tagged with “Socialism”.


The problem with Ralph Miliband, according to son Ed, is that he didn’t properly appreciate Margaret Thatcher: “My dad was sceptical of all the Thatcher aspirational stuff,”  Indeed, and so are all those of us who were unconvinced by it at the time, and were never converted to the Neo-liberal project subsequently.

Ralph Miliband was of course a Marxist academic and a prominent and distinguished member of the British New Left.  Like many on the left he was sceptical of the British Labour Party’s ability or willingness to achieve fundamental change to capitalist society.  The Labour Party, he believed, was trapped both tactically, by its reliance on parliamentary reformism, and ideologically, by the dominance of labourist and revisionist perspectives on capitalism versus socialism.  His book ‘Parliamentary Socialism’, published in 1961, records the Labour Party’s political development from its creation at the beginning of the 20th century to the internal policy battles over nationalisation and nuclear strategy following its defeat in the 1959 General Election.

When ‘Parliamentary Socialism’ was reprinted in 1972, Miliband added a postscript which reassessed the Party under the leadership of Harold Wilson.  For those who insist that the move to ‘New Labour’ orchestrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown represents a fundamental break with what the Party believed or how it behaved previously, this makes interesting reading.

For example:

…Harold Wilson said much, in the eighteen months after he became leader of the Labour Party, which appeared to provide an answer to Labour’s search for the kind of positive ‘message’ which it had failed to find ever since the collapse of the Attlee Government in 1959.

His most insistent and persuasive theme was the need for change, renewal, modernization and reform in every area of British life, most of all in economic life.  Much of what he said sounded radical enough…. It needs to be understood, however, that what Wilson was attacking was not British capitalism as a system, but some facets of it, the ‘old boy network’, ‘candy-floss commercialism’, ‘parasitic speculators’, the ‘grouse-moor mentality’, and that what, in effect, he counterposed to this was not the vision of a socialist society, but of a renovated capitalism, freed from its aristocratic and gentlemanly accretions, dynamic, professional, entrepreneurial, numerate and efficient.

…Wilson’s apparent conviction that it was possible to make a clear separation between ‘patriotic’ and ‘unpatriotic’ enterprise altogether ignored the degree to which those forms of it to which he objected and those forms of it which he approved were in fact intertwined.  Secondly, that even if some such separation was possible, the kind of capitalism which appeared to meet with his approval was as socially irresponsible and greedily exploitative as any other kind.

Ralph Miliband, though, does not accuse Wilson of simply engaging in a public relations exercise.  Wilson’s urge to reform was genuine but:

… his reforming zeal was deliberately set, for all its verbal edge, within the context of an economic system whose basic features were accepted by him and his colleagues as given; and that all their proposals for change had therefore to be adapted to the nature and requirements of that system.  But ‘adapted ‘ is too weak – ‘subordinated’ would be more accurate…. the ‘modernization’ for which he asked could only mean the more efficient operation of the capitalist system; and this would include that ever-greater concentration of private economic power, which he denounced, but which the Labour Government was in fact to encourage.

So when Ed Miliband announces that he has no problem with some people becoming very rich, as long as they made their money “the hard way”; or that his and his party’s mission is to “save capitalism from itself”, he is firmly in the tradition of previous Labour leaders.  I am sure that Ed, like Wilson, genuinely wants to fashion a more ‘humane’ capitalism.  But also, like Wilson, he believes he is constrained by what the nature and requirements of the system will allow.  And here lies the rub.  Wilson, in the sixties, was operating within the social democratic consensus that emerged in the non-communist European states and the USA after the Second World War.  This was the unwritten concordat between labour and capital that sanctioned the role of governments in macroeconomic policy, allowed trade unions some limited access to political and economic decision making, and accepted (however grudgingly) greater redistribution of wealth both directly in better wages and pensions, and indirectly in greater public spending on health, welfare and education for working people.  Now some might say that, compared to Wilson, Ed Miliband is a political minnow.  But the essential fact here is that he is swimming in a very different pond.

The post-war decades saw increasing strains within the social democratic consensus as economic growth stagnated and capital accumulation was felt (at least by those doing the accumulating) to be blocked by state regulation and the power of organised labour.  The crises of the seventies were resolved by the overturning of that consensus in the interests of capital.  In the US, the UK and elsewhere the right took political power with a very different agenda, using the shock doctrine of exploiting economic and political crisis to implement radical change.  This assault involved the systematic dis-empowerment of organised labour and democratic institutions, the deregulation and removal of barriers (national and global) for business, and the large-scale privatisation of state assets and services.  It established  Neo-liberalism as the new hegemony and consigned social democracy to the same realm of unreality to which ‘socialism’ had already been dispatched.

The Labour Party, because of its revisionist ideology and parliamentarialism, was completely powerless to resist this onslaught.  In the face of the destruction of social democracy as a viable political position the Party had a clear choice: either oppose the new order by adopting a more radical, anti-capitalist position, or accept that ‘There Is No Alternative’ and work within the constraints imposed by Neo-liberalism.  Labour of course chose the second, some grudgingly and some enthusiastically.  Hence the nature of Blair/Brown’s ‘modernisation’, the ostentatious removal of the Party’s Clause IV, the alliance building with the City of London and the Murdoch press.  The Party leaders are very aware that they are swimming in different waters now and have aligned themselves with the sharks in fear of being eaten.

When Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership over his brother David, Private Eye magazine produced a front page with an image of TweedleDum and TweedleDee and the caption “Dum wins, Dee furious”.  Many party members felt this was an unfair slur on Ed -  the same people, probably, who believed there would be some significant difference when Gordon Brown replaced Blair as Prime Minister.  The fact is that there is almost no difference politically between Blair, Brown and the two Milibands.  They have all signed up to the Neo-liberal ‘reality’ and cannot envisage doing anything to challenge its precepts.  For this reason Labour would not repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union laws and will not even support union actions to defend pay and conditions (apart from pointless and powerless A-B marches, preferably on days when there is minimal disruption for business), and Labour will continue to champion markets and ‘entrepreneurs’ over collective and social provision.  This is despite the fact that, like Wilson, Labour leaders know very well the effect is to increase inequality, boost the transfer of wealth from poor to rich, and produce a further decline in social solidarity.  All things they denounce but will, given power, encourage.

I suspect the main difference between Ed Miliband and his brother David is that Ed has a residual nostalgia for social democracy, whereas David is unencumbered by that baggage.

Postscript:  Interestingly, Ed Miliband’s views on capitalism, as expressed in The Telegraph interview with Charles Moore, are a little more nuanced and thoughtful than you would guess from The Guardian’s report quoted above (see Sunny Hundal’s post on Liberal Conspiracy) – and this might possibly be connected to The Guardian’s apparent lack of support for Ed and Labour in comparison to its continued defence of Nick Clegg.  However Ed’s views still clearly fall in to the pattern outlined by his father – radical(ish) rhetoric obscuring an inability to challenge the causes of the problems being denounced.

Now that Gordon Brown has announced that he will step down as leader of the Labour Party, he will no doubt be looking forward to having more time for contemplation and reflection.  I imagine he might even have time for a little light reading.  Perhaps I could suggest the following:

The vision of the early socialists was of a society which had abolished for ever the dichotomy – the split personality caused by people’s unequal control over their social development – between man’s personal and collective existence, by substituting communal co-operation for the divisive forces of competition.  Today the logic of present economic development, in inflation and stagnation, and at the same time the demand for the fullest use of material resources, makes it increasingly impossible to manage the economy both for private profit and the needs of society as a whole.  Yet the long-standing paradox of Scottish politics has been the surging forward of working class industrial and political pressure (and in particular the loyal support given to Labour) and its containment through the accumulative failures of successive Labour Governments.   More than fifty years ago socialism was a qualitative concept, an urgently felt moral imperative, about social control (and not merely state control or more or less equality).  Today for many it means little more than a scheme for compensating the least fortunate in an unequal society.

The author?  It was written in 1975 by a young Scottish socialist called Gordon Brown (in his introduction to the Red Paper on Scotland).

This is not the first example of a political journey from workers’ champion to bankers’ friend (and it surely will not be the last).  I am reminded of former Trotskyist T. Dan Smith, another labour leader who believed he could use capitalism for the benefit of the working class.  That all ended in ignominy too.

What have we learned from the last round of party conferences before the next General Election? That the main policy debate between Labour, Conservatives and LibDems is about public spending cuts (where they will fall and how heavily rather than the justice of who will bear them or the necessity of having them now). No great surprise there. Or with the fact that the Tories clearly anticipate victory while Labour is still in denial about its forthcoming drubbing. Despite the fact that these events are now almost purely an expensive PR exercise, tightly controlled to promote the parties’ public image, they often (unwittingly?) reveal something useful.
The Labour Party conference provided, if anyone still needed it, confirmation that it is still trapped in the ‘New Labour’ mindset of social authoritarianism coupled with economic neo-liberalism. The party that excelled at being the bankers’ friend now finds itself in a bidding war to cut public services, pensions and jobs. Some will see this as merely a right-wing phase for the party and hope for a shift to the left after the election. Although this might turn out to be true, the idea that the Labour Party will then be either willing or capable of pursuing a socialist or even radical alternative seems to be based on a determined suspension of disbelief. Leaving aside the electoral prospects of a demoralised rump Labour Party, there are more fundamental obstacles. The Labour left has no more strategy for effecting change now than it had in the eighties – a vacuum that encouraged first Kinnock and then Blair and Brown to adopt the opposition’s agenda, and the Blairites are insisting on more ‘modernisation’. So is the party, whether ‘New’ or old, fit for purpose?
Paul Allender, in his book “What’s Wrong With Labour”, argued that Labour’s left and right (and even ‘New Labour’) share the party’s ethos of ‘labourism’ which precludes it from ever being an effective agent of radical change. Allender identified seven characteristics of this inherent labourism:

an absence of ideology;
a confused and confusing policy-making process;
‘pragmatism’ over principles;
aiming to represent ‘national’ rather than sectional interests;
relying on an emotional rather than rational appeal;
a lack of democracy and excessive bureaucracy;
a culture of defeatism.

His book catalogues clear evidence of all these since the party’s inception as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. In addition both the left and Fabian traditions within the party share an overly centralising, statist approach to reform.
Given its slump in membership and public support, and the appalling record of its time in government, it is surely time to ask: what is the Labour Party for? What are its aims and objectives? The nearest it gets is the often cited claim to be in favour of greater social justice. But this is left so vague that it does not differentiate Labour from most other parties (probably only the BNP is explicitly in favour of less social justice). This exemplifies most of the seven sins of labourism. ‘Social justice’ is a muddled, undefined concept; it appeals mainly to emotion rather than reason; lack of ideology obscures the reasons for injustice and therefore the steps required to deal with it; by aiming to represent all interests the party undermines its own objectives in ending divisions and builds in defeat from the beginning.  (BTW – any party that enthusiastically pursues building more prisons is aiming to contain social injustice, not remove it.)
For a clear and concise discussion of socialists’ objectives, and the opportunities and traps of using state institutions to achieve these, William Morris’s lecture on Communism, though written over 100 years ago, still enlightens and inspires.

There appears to be widespread consensus about the need for Government to make deep cuts in public expenditure in order to reduce government borrowing. Not only have the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties agreed that this is necessary, but also most political and economic commentators and, indeed, public opinion. The only difference of opinion (and therefore the only area for debate) seems to be around how soon to cut and where. This is widely touted to be one of the key issues in the forthcoming general election and may even turn out to be the only thing differentiating the three parties.

Although the conservatives are always in favour of cutting public expenditure in principle and ‘New Labour’ has, from its birth, been a ruthless promoter of privatisation and market forces, the spur for this particular round of me-tooism has been the deluge of public money thrown at the financial system since the debt/credit crisis began to unravel in 2008 plus the extra spending on benefits and drop in tax income due to the resulting recession. Government borrowing is anticipated to reach £175bn as a result and there is widespread agreement that this has to be reduced as quickly as possible (although the reasons why this is so necessary are usually obscured and taken for granted).

The scale of cuts being envisioned by the three main parties will mean not just the axing of high-profile projects such as ID cards or Trident missile submarines (and good riddance to those), but also across-the-board cuts in basic services (education, healthcare, social services) and public sector pay and pensions. Cuts in Government spending will also prolong the recession and maintain high levels of unemployment (currently 2.5 million and rising, the highest level since 1995).

So it is the people who use public services or who lose their job who will bear the cost of rescuing the financial system and bailing out the banks but, oddly, no corresponding contribution from the people and institutions at the centre of the bail out. In fact, as we now know, “bonuses are back” for bankers (even where the banks are, for all intents and purposes, owned by the public!). One social commentator, Maurice Glasman, has described the bail out as “the biggest transfer of wealth from poor to rich since the Norman Conquest” (‘The common good’ in What Next For Labour, Demos).

Neither are there any serious proposals to control or regulate the financial sector to prevent a recurrence of such crises. So how to explain the determination of Government to return to ‘business as usual,’ and the one-sidedness of bearing the cost?  The New Labour project is founded on the idea that extra funding for the public sector can only come from faster growth and bigger profits in the private sector.  Gordon Brown is a long standing admirer of the private finance sector, its risk taking and the income it generates for government.  He would clearly like to be seen as the person who rescued the system and returned to the status quo ante.

The one-sided burden of paying for this rescue, though, is a classic example of ‘lemon socialism.’ This is a term used to describe those occasions when the state intervenes to rescue some failing part of the private sector (‘lemons’). But it also exposes the way in which capitalism is adept at avoiding the risks of the free market while retaining all the rewards. Another way of describing this is “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor.” Other examples that spring to mind include the Government’s Private Finance Initiatives, the privatisation of the railways, and the “rescue” of MG Rover.

Why then, given the catastrophic failure of finance capitalism, and the widespread public anger with the banks and support for action, is there so little being offered in terms of fundamental change? To find an answer to this you need to acknowledge both the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (“there is no alternative”), and how the balance of power has steadily shifted over the last thirty years away from democratic institutions, trade unions and civil society. Global finance capital is now too big and powerful to be easily restrained by governments acting alone to implement social democratic reforms. And, since the profitability from the (‘real’) productive economy has been stagnant for some time, the pressure is still for increased growth of finance capital due to the higher returns from its speculative bubbles. Even with the increasing likelihood of crises, crashes and the wipe out of wealth when bubbles burst, given the application of lemon socialism, this is a low risk strategy for the rich.