‘In the various e-newsletters I receive from several left-wing organisations there is often a tone of desperation. There is also the familiar ‘call to arms’, the ‘arms’ in question being petitions, ignored peaceful marches and the get-togethers that hope to spread new roots and deepen the already-existing ones. I’ve attended my fair share of the latter over the years and disappointment has never been very far behind.
It has always been a mistake to rely on the assumption that the next person’s understanding of something you think you share, is the same as your understanding of it. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a socialist gathering where everyone has been asked why they say they are socialist, or what they hope to achieve with it? Since the total triumph of Neo-liberal economic policy much of the left has taken the position of pressure group. Pressuring for what? That is the question. It appears to be the regular agenda of issues anyone calling themselves “left-wing” engages with alongside the core problem.
The ‘core problem’ refers to the problem of the plutocratically-owned capitalist economy. Not just a selection of its worst activities and the deleterious effects, but the problems arising from its very existence as the dominant underlying cause of social misery. It always stood to reason that the solution was its removal. Well, not quite. The second rung of socialism, the non-revolutionary path, has been satisfied with keeping capitalism on, but making sure it is safely chained-up and under strict supervision. From this we got the entire circus of sideshows including: reform socialism; social democracy; market socialism; capitalism with a ‘human face’. It has led here. To the universal triumph of capitalist markets presided over by powerful vested interests. Its products are the ugly transformation of work into profitable stupidity. To the unemployed wasteland of hundreds of years of human skills that are ‘no longer required’; forced into obsolescance in an economy that values a narrow ideas of ‘skills’ and yet dresses it up as the last word in skill diversity. It has led to housing scarcity; more poverty; chronic debt; economic catastrophe; more pollution; more reckless consumption.
It failed. Capitalism hasn’t been harnessed for the best outcome for all. People in all age ranges: the under-25s, the over 40s, the over 50s, a great mass of people, are with the programme. Some might be upset with various bits of ‘the programme’, some little result of it that complicates and adds uncertainty to their lives, but ‘the programme’ of neo-liberal economic dominance is perceived as simply the way of the world. It has failed dismally, beyond creating a consumption Mecca and replacing human skill with automation, and yet the greatest PR exercise ever has been in presenting this dismal failure as the greatest success story in the history of humankind.
In the Netherlands – which is a rather right-wing country within Western Europe – the socialist parties are neutered. The clearest sign that they have had to kneel down and kiss the ring of triumphant neo-liberalist ideology is the moderated language now used in reference to capitalist economics. The SP (socialistisch partij) is a decent organisation. It is critical of the governments of the day (which are invariably either centre-right or right-wing and all neo-liberal), but its critique always falls short of condemning the core of the problem. They are not averse to wheeling out the populist line of ‘getting small businesses working’; the sort of stuff appealing to the popular idea that capitalism, being essentially morally neutral, is merely hijacked by crooks and corporatism. The same basic idea feeding into the sub-normal fantasies of libertarians and followers of the Smith religion. Most importantly, they have no counter-offensive, no clear informational antidote to the all-pervasive neo-liberal ideology impregnated deep into general culture.
To express fundamental opposition to neo-liberalism (essentially extreme capitalist rationalisation) is considered equal to opposing empirical reality. An explosion of different and disparate ideas clouds the problem. Since the rise of ‘new atheism’ in the U.S. and the theatre of ‘birthers’ and ‘911 conspiracies’, an entire swath of people keen to disassociate themselves from flat-earth thinking likes to stick closer to what is regarded as the ‘rational truth’. Capitalist economics, in all its forms and guises, has the rather enviable position of being considered ‘normal reality’. To most of the world it is not so much an economic system among many as it is just something that ‘is’, like the weather or the sea. Capitalism is not considered as a ‘way’ of running an economy, it is thought of as ‘the’ economy. That is a powerful position to occupy and renders everything else as mere alternatives.
The current left (and even the left of the past) has concentrated too much on criticism and too little on portraying itself as legitimate. Walking the streets in crowds shouting ‘socialism now!’ instantly makes you into a sideline critic rather than someone playing equally on the field. Where is the magazine of heterodox economics that can counter the dominance of ‘The Economist’ as a mainstream discussion of economics? Current socialist thought is not far from the position of ‘alternative’ medicine compared to medical science; the latter seen as the rational truth, the former as a pretender with some crank adherents. One major failing is that the ‘core problem’, the economy, is focused upon less and less as socialist movements – especially the Netherlands International Socialists – busies itself with popular sociology and a never-ending series of anti-racism marches. Too often it is students who move up through the ranks and become academics making their careers as ‘theorists’ within these organisations. The small faithful applauds and the rest of society remains oblivious and carries on living under the ‘normality’ of the corporate-capitalist economy, sometimes happy, sometimes disgruntled.
By getting sidetracked from the ‘core problem’ socialist organisations are going nowhere apart from the next ignored and contained march and the next forgotten ‘conference’.