Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Capitalism in Crisis: So How Am I Going To Explain to My Kids What Socialism Is?

Hot news: today, like every other day of my life, capitalism didn't collapse. Which is perhaps just as well: I'm fairly certain now that there isn't a soul on the planet who would know what to do if it did.

The SWP remind us, in a Old Time Religion kind of of way, that Markets are Bad; Stumbling persists in his lonely but honourable quest to invent a sort of 'son of Yugoslavian style market socialism' by re-connecting collective ownership forms to market driven enterprise; and the parecon lot give us what the more hard-line Marxists would no doubt sneeringly refer to as 'utopian' socialism. More or less everyone else give us rehashed left Keynesian programmes of macro-economic policies, though often with an important Greenish twist.

I'm not sneering at any of this. I am attracted to aspects of all of these approaches, despite the fact they are clearly contradictory. But I am, wistfully, asking why is the Left so much better at analysis – as in this excellent Monthly Review piece – than prescription?

I think it is because we've lost an overarching story to tell, a meta-narrative as those clever folk who understand these things tend to say. The two traditions of 1917- not just the Bolshevik one, but the counter-veiling, legalist social democratic one that emerged in the West – are both effectively dead. I really don't think the material or historical conditions still exist to go back to the ways of that old, post 1917 Left in any of its 57 varieties, be they social democratic or Marxist.  I'm still convinced by the New Times people on that one.

I'm reminded of the High Victorian period. A 'Left' disappeared, more or less, during the mid nineteen century – a Left driven by a democratic, ultimately post French Revolution agenda, about electoral arrangements and the franchise (cf Chartism). The 'Left' which re-emerged afterwards was different - more focused on industrial struggles, more concerned with financial as well as democratic equality, more 'socialist' (or at least incipiently socialist) in a sense  those of us born in the twentieth century might recognise. 

I've often wondered if we're currently living through a similar period. The ideological foundations of the Left of my youth have crumbled. Something new has yet to emerge. My longer term hope of the coming recession is that it can act as the midwife to a new way of looking at the world in terms of framing a coherent Red-Green response to changing conditions.

Because the neo-liberal spell is now broken. It's not the only way of doing things, it's not 'the natural order'. We have the conditions for politics again, not just marketing and management write large as per 'triangulation' and 'the Third Way'. & , yes, the questions now before us are creating the politics of running capitalism differently. But if we do this well, other, more basic questions may emerge along the way.

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