15 June 2011

Europe after socialism and social democracy

With the demise of socialism and social democracy in Europe a new politics is coming into existence.

Is a new pattern of political alignment appearing in Europe? On 31 May Peter Spiegel wrote in The Financial Times:

“We may be witnessing a generational change in European political dynamics. Traditional left-right divisions have narrowed… In its place, we are seeing a new division, between globalisers and localisers. The urban elites on both the left (intellectuals, liberal internationalists) and the right (free traders, global business leaders) face a challenge to their postwar consensus from a new group of revanchists. This political force also comes from both the left (trade unionists, working-class whites) and the right (rural nationalists, far-right xenophobes).”

How does an observation such as Spiegel's fit with a Marxist conception of society? I think it must be something like this:

While a particular system of class relations (i.e. owners of capital versus people who can only acquire the means to live by selling their labour power) is a concomitant of any kind of capitalism, political ideologies and identities within and across social classes under capitalism vary over time and from place to place. In other words, in different capitalist societies or in one society at different times, the politics can be markedly different.

That said, in Europe at least in the twentieth century, the major political division that ran though society tended to mirror class relations. Large numbers of working class people identified with the parties of the left, communist and social democratic, while non-socialist parties, liberal or conservative, had their base among capitalists, managers and professional people. This political division based on social class grew and became sharper, at least until the mid 1970s.

The strength of the left across Europe in post war Europe tended to force all non-socialist factions into an electoral alliance against the left. With the demise of the left since the end of the twentieth century, the raison d’etre for that anti-socialist unity has attenuated, so different currents of non-socialist opinion can again compete against each other in the political sphere.

How then is the right dividing? We can see nationalistic elements breaking away from the main parties of the right. The mainstream right remains attached to running a globalised capitalism within a liberal democratic framework, while the nationalist right attempts to rally "the people" against outsiders, immigrants, the EU, etc.. In Britain, this phenomenon is to some extent straitjacketed by the first-past-the-post electoral system, which favours a duopoly of political parties. Nonetheless, the continued electoral existence of the UK Independence Party, UKIP, shows the trend.

The left, once a coalition between socialism and progressive liberalism, is splitting along the same lines as the right. Political liberalism, internationalist in outlook, retains its hold within much of the intelligentsia, but this cosmopolitan movement is ever more at odds with illiberal and parochialising tendencies, now masquerading as the British left. I will mention two here: so-called Blue Labour and multiculturalism.

Following New Labour’s 2010 election defeat, a movement has developed within the Labour Party to shift the party’s image from urbanite Middle England to a kind of political “Chavism” – or what is increasingly called Blue Labour. In essence, this an attempt to steal some of the clothes of the fascistic right and incorporate them in Labour’s image; e.g. promoting nationalism, scapegoating immigrants, being tough on crime, etc. Authoritarian populism of this kind is epitomised by the New Labour ex-Communist former Home Secretary John Reid.

Multiculturalism, meaning the use of the state to facilitate and maintain separate cultural identities, may run counter to the ideas of Blue Labour, but it has nothing to do with either political liberalism or socialism. Under multiculturalism, just as under a mono-cultural system, the rights of individuals are trumped by the demands of traditional cultural groups and their governing hierarchies. In a mono-cultural society one culture supposedly binds everybody within a state; in multiculturalism your ethnic origin determines which community norms bind you. One only has to look at the growth of faith schools in Britain to see this in action.

That the leading dynamic on the “left” has become a battle between two parochial and illiberal currents, Blue Labour and multiculturalism, is itself proof the demise of socialism and social democracy.

The main conclusion to arise from the short essay is that the heart of the left, the symbiosis of political liberalism and the struggle for socio-economic equality, seems to have fallen off the agenda. Socialists can today only choose the least worst option from what remains.

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