For most of the last 30 years it looked like socialism had been soundly beaten by its old adversary, capitalism. From the mid 1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s second government defeated Britain’s striking coal miners, until around 2009 when the extent of the banking crisis had sunk in, free-market capitalism was the only game in town. But the persistent economic hangover that’s been dogging us since the financial crash has invited serious scrutiny of the capitalist system. Both the machinery that drives the free market and its output have been found wanting. From Greece to Iceland, and even in the USA, people are looking for alternatives to the rampant inequality and miserable austerity that have been imposed upon them by the worst excesses of the free-marketeers. In response to this, after decades of shuffling about on the fringes of the political scene, socialism now finds itself with a growing audience that is keen to hear how things can be done differently.
Socialist ideology, effectively moribund for a generation, is bubbling up in the media, in the streets, and even in parliaments all across Europe. The UK Labour Party, which arguably discarded any pretence of being a socialist organisation when it elected Tony Blair as leader in 1994, is being dragged out of its centrist armchair by Jeremy Corbyn and forced to address the problems of the day from a socialist perspective. Even the Scottish National Party, hitherto very careful to tread only on the middle ground of Scottish politics, is talking the socialist talk. The language of social justice, nationalisation, and state intervention in the market has become current for the first time since the good/bad old days of the 1970s. The virulence of the right-wing media’s attacks on Mr Corbyn and his comrades tells us that the establishment is wary of the wave of public support for this socialist challenge to the capitalist consensus.
The evidence against the current version of capitalism is overwhelming to anyone who takes the trouble to pull their head out of the sand and have a critical look at what has been done in the name of the free market. Private and public debt have increased to levels that make GDP growth (on which perpetuation of the system depends) increasingly difficult to sustain. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority is inhibiting productive activity and causing widespread resentment. Poverty, measured by a person’s ability to pay for the basic necessities of life, is on the increase even among those who have regular paid employment. The consumption of the earth’s store of fossil fuels continues apace, regardless of the possible catastrophe of global warming and the certain conflict over diminishing supplies. There is no doubt: the current trajectory of the neo-liberal free market will take us to hell in a handcart.
Sadly, the socialism that is being touted as the saviour of our society will not save us. If Jeremy Corbyn and his ilk are able to get power and push through their socialist policies then there might be temporary reductions in poverty and inequality but the problems of debt and sustainability will remain. Ever-growing interest payments will continue to force us into merciless pursuit of profit, which requires perpetual growth of consumption, which means laying waste the resources of the planet at an ever-increasing rate. The problem with socialism has always been the narrowness of its focus. It’s potential for making the world a better place has always been thwarted by its obsession with defeating capitalism. This love of the anti-capitalist struggle has blinded socialists to the shortcomings of their own economic policies which are just as financially, materially and (ironically) socially unsustainable as those of the old enemy.
In theory, socialism wants to wrest control of the economy away from the capitalists and put it in the hands of the people. In practice, what socialism proposes is taking control away from one small, elite group of self-selecting individuals (capitalists) and handing it to another small, elite group of self-selecting individuals (politicians and technocrats). The rest of us know that whoever has control of the economy we will always struggle to find enough money to pay the bills and make our loan repayments. We know this because we’ve seen it all before. We’ve had 30 odd years of listening to free-market trickle down theory while watching the money trickle in precisely the opposite direction. And before that we had the Winter of Discontent.
Socialists like to hark back to the heady decades following WW2 when governments pumped money into rebuilding war-torn Britain, when the National Health Service was born, when, for a while, there was almost full employment and everything was rosy red. They forget to tell us that in these crimson times there was still poverty, deprivation, debt, and incontinent wastage of natural resources. They forget about the suppression of individuality, the grey drudgery of working life, demarcation, protectionism, the appalling quality of products and services. They forget about politically-engineered power cuts, endemic institutional inertia, and universal grumpiness.
Socialism can, arguably, make things easier for more people for more of the time, but it can never deliver the socially just utopia of which many of its proponents dream. It can’t deliver because it’s stuck in the same rut as capitalism. Socialism accepts the same financial system, the same fiscal system, the same systems of democracy as capitalism, the same concentration of economic control in the hands of an elite. By agreeing to operate within these constraints socialism restricts its ability to do the good things that it instinctively wants to do – be fair, be compassionate – and makes it impossible for it to do the things that it feels it ought to do – be globally equitable and sustainable. The sad truth is that socialism, if given a chance by the long-suffering electorate, will take us to the same hell in the same handcart. Capitalism and socialism are like two cats in a coal mine fighting over a dead canary. They’re too busy hissing and spitting at each other to recognise the significance of the lifeless bird. The rest of us, meanwhile, are stumbling about in the dark hoping that someone will shine a torch and lead us out into the daylight.
The likes of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Alexis Tsipras in Greece have been given the opportunity to fill this leadership vacuum, but they are struggling to tear themselves away from the cat fight. They are reviving old, worn-out arguments rather than concentrating on working out how to deliver sustainable prosperity for one and all. Most of the people who have put socialists into positions of power really don’t give a damn about socialism. They grasp at it only because it’s the enemy of capitalism (which they perceive to be the root of their problems) not because they believe in the nationalisation of the means of production or the sanctity of Karl Marx. They certainly don’t want the 20th century socialism of British Leyland or the Eastern Bloc. They just want something that’s fairer, more humane, more sustainable.
If the socialists are serious about using their time in power to change the world for the better they need to forget about 20th century ideology and focus on the task. They need to recognise the flaws in our current financial, fiscal and political systems and develop alternatives that will allow our economies, and the planet on which we all rely, to thrive. We need new thinking, new language, new designs, new mechanisms that get money flowing through the economy, removing the burden of debt from our households and governments. We need our economic systems to liberate the human capital of our communities, allowing us to do whatever needs to be done for our common security and individual comfort.
Much of the hard work has already been done. We know that money created as debt for profit by banks is strangling our economy. We know that a sovereign money system will eliminate the debt and allow our economy to breathe. We know that universal basic income will get rid of the obscenity of state-sponsered pauperism and abolish wage slavery. We know that we can abolish stupid taxes that discourage productive activity and replace them with intelligent taxes that encourage us to do useful things in sustainable ways. All we need is somebody who’s in a position of power to recognise the opportunity and get on with the job.
Jeremy? Alexis? Is there anybody out there?