Socialism – Is There an Alternative?

Since Margaret Thatcher made her famous pronouncement about the lack of an alternative to free-market capitalism, many on the left have seemed to agree. The old model of state-centred, planned socialism was dead, but what would take its place? Elegant and elaborate models of participatory planning and market socialism simply begged the question of how you get there from here. Some waited for a general theory that would explain it all. Others, such as those associated with the World Social Forum, arrived at tepid pronouncements such as “Another World is Possible.” Is there no alternative?

What is an ‘Alternative’?

Surely an alternative is not the same as a Utopia. What is the point of idealized futures that never arrive? An alternative is rather a better society that might be realized under foreseeable conditions and through the application of political agency. Political agency is crucial. What social forces will back the new society and why, and who – what party, what social movements – will lead and how will they organize themselves? An alternative without realistic political agency is not a strategy; it is just wishful thinking.

If we understand the alternative in these terms, do we have one? Yes and no. On the one hand, we have a rich and edifying body of ideas about what socialism in the post-communist world is and isn’t. On the other hand, we face enormous impediments in the realm of political agency, at the level both of supportive social forces and political organization. We have not resolved these latter issues yet, but change is underway.

What is the Goal?

Is socialism a movement to end capitalism or, more mundanely, to reconfigure capitalism away from neoliberalism? Do we really need to choose? It is more productive to regard socialism as a journey rather than a predetermined destination, and where precisely the voyage takes us is yet to be known.

We do know, however, that we face twin – socio-economic and ecological – crises that neoliberal capitalism has fostered but seems incapable of resolving. The former crisis involves principally vast and growing inequality, increasingly precarious and ill-paid employment as a result of neoliberal globalization and hyper-automation, consequent high levels of household indebtedness, and the economic and political dominance of finance capital. Climate change and resource shortages, especially of fresh water, are the chief ingredients of the ecological crisis. These trends threaten our existence and foment wars within and between nations. The connections between these twin crises and neoliberal capitalism are clear for those who are willing to see.

But we do not know, and indeed cannot know, if their resolution requires the end of capitalism. In fact, the remarkable resilience of capitalism suggests that, despite our best efforts, a reconfigured capitalism is more likely than a transformation. That will be enough if, in retaining the best elements of capitalism, we attain our social and ecological goals.

In practice, we will know only the voyage. Where are we heading? It is best to forget the grand abstractions, whether socialization of the means of production, the elimination of exploitation and alienation, or decommodification and the extension of economic democracy. It is the strength, but also the weakness, of socialism that it is dominated by intellectuals. We love the grand abstractions. But they mean nothing to the people who count, those who comprise the potentially supportive social forces.

We need to frame goals that fit with universal aspirations. What do people want? Socialism has always claimed that capitalism, or economic liberalism, stunts human lives. So what constraints do we need to loosen? Although a burgeoning literature debates the sources of happiness, we might agree on three basic features of the good life: dignity, security for individuals and families, and the equal opportunity for all to live long and meaningful lives. These basics may sound prosaic, but their realization is revolutionary in import.

Only the Nordic countries have come close to their realization. Is it any wonder, therefore, that they tend to rank (especially Denmark) in the top tier of happiness, according to the annual World Happiness Reports?

So how do we build a society that exalts these values? Actually, one finds a vibrant and inspiring debate on the left on how, incrementally, democratically and at various levels, to build community, promote political and economic democracy, advance universalism in services and the solidarity economy, and thus satisfy human aspirations. If you are skeptical about the vibrancy of the debate, just check out these digital resources – the ones that come immediately to my mind.

One set of resources includes both reflections on alternatives in general and more specific issues: Dissent, Renewal, Transformation (“Where Love Meets Social Justice”), The Next System Project. Take Back the Economy is a remarkable compendium of well-argued proposals on how to shift the capitalist economy to reflect the values of the left. The P2P Foundation explores how the expansion of the “commons” can advance emancipation. And the British Compass group debates a range of left issues, especially the formation of a progressive alliance. We have no dearth of practical ideas.

So what is lacking? The answer is obvious: a strong grassroots constituency and, in most cases, an effective political organization.

Who Forms the Political Base?

Concerning the constituency – a central component of political agency – reflection reveals a puzzle. The twin socio-economic and ecological crises have provoked widespread popular concern and anger, especially since the financial collapse of 2008 and the onset of extreme weather events. But the left has not been able to capitalize on this anger and concern, except in Latin America for a while.

Why not? One big reason is, of course, the declining influence and unity of the labour movement. A triple deterioration has weakened the old progressive base.

  • Automation and globalization have reduced the numbers of industrial workers.
  • Falling union memberships, top-down union leadership and anti-union government policy (such as in the UK, the USA, Chile and China) have circumscribed union action.
  • Working-class solidarity has declined. Worse than that, the neoliberal diffusion of individualist, acquisitive values and growing working-class heterogeneity (combined with economic insecurity) has fueled a right-wing populist revolt  by white workers. A bitter divide over immigration in advanced capitalist societies has undermined leftist parties that have championed minority rights.

What to do? To some extent, well-educated, cosmopolitan urban knowledge employees and professionals have compensated for the loss of white working-class support. The rise of nativist, intolerant movements has forced a polarization. However, this “elite” support, when combined with progressive advocacy of identity politics, merely compounds the resentment of white workers and their dependents. Who speaks for those left behind?

The obvious answer is that the leftist parties must reshape their vision to integrate the interests of white workers and youth with those of minority groups. (The left can hardly abandon the last and remain true to its internationalist, anti-racist perspective.) Yet it is not easy to build a politics of solidarity. It is easier to exploit anger and resentment, as the far right does with its simplified slogans and conspiracy theories, than to unite the groups via a complex, conciliatory message. Nevertheless, the effort must be made. The left’s embrace of identity politics is proving suicidal.

Besides expanding economic opportunity for all, leftist parties will have to tackle the issue of immigration directly and frankly. How many immigrants can society realistically absorb, and how can that number be guaranteed?

How about the environmentally concerned, from all walks of life, who are troubled by impending ecological collapse. Can they be a reliable ally of the left? Their adherence to the progressive wing might seem logical. Consider this syllogism.

  • Climate change threatens our existence.
  • Climate change arises principally from the degree and pattern of economic growth, ie, neoliberal capitalism.
  • Therefore, to safeguard our existence, we need to transform the current pattern and extent of growth, as the left proposes.

And yet – how much easier is it to shrug, to deny, to hope that the climate-change skeptics are right, and thus avoid the personal costs and disruption involved in addressing the ecological crisis. So we bumble on.

Well, what about youth? Here the picture is brighter(link). Of course, youth are not inherently leftist. However, three aspects of their experience make them open to its message.

  • Youth are not encumbered by Cold-War misconceptions of “socialism”.
  • They are the principal victims, along with the working class, of the current capitalist system, especially growing insecurity.
  • They witness their world crumbling before their eyes in the form of global warming and the destruction of habitats worldwide.

Not surprisingly, then, youth were the major impetus behind the ongoing Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States, the surge of the Labour Party in the British election of 2017, and the surprising strength of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the French presidential election of 2017 – not to mention the demonstrations known as the Arab Spring, the mass marches in Chile from 2006 onwards, and the Occupy movement. Whether youths will remain engaged as they age remains to be seen. In light of their worsening prospects, however, it is likely.

How Should the Left Be Organized?

Even if, as seems possible, socialism can find a constituency, how will it be organized? Three levels of constraints have to be overcome to form a powerful political movement.

  • Electoral rules vitiate the left’s political clout. As Bernie Sanders famously asks at rallies: are you ready for a revolution? By revolution, he is referring to a relatively innocuous political revolution as the precondition for progressive socio-economic change. Consider how the US electoral arrangements obstruct the left. The latter is hemmed in by an exclusionary and conservative two-party system; it must compete in gerrymandered constituencies; it is bedeviled by a first-past-the-post system that denies commensurate representation to progressive voters; and, worst of all, it is outgunned in a political system where the wealthy can exert political control through lobbyists, expensive public relations campaigns and the purchase of politicians owing to lax campaign finance regulations. The US left is arguably in the worst electoral situation, but other liberal democracies are also undergoing decay and incipient oligarchy. Proportional representation, campaign finance reform, and the end to gerrymandering are the least we should strive to achieve.
  • Leftist parties need to make a decisive break with neoliberal doctrine. Social-democratic and socialist parties in many countries, especially in Europe, have seen their popular support plummet as they mimicked centrist parties in adopting market-based policies and austerity measures, together with identity politics. This “Third-Way”’ approach has become counter-productive. Yet positive alternatives have emerged: Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France and Podemos in Spain. Clearly, leaders of the left do not need to be charismatic (no one could accuse Sanders or Corbyn of that)). But they do have to be authentic (passionate, not slick or opportunistic) in their espousal of socialist values to attract disillusioned voters, especially younger ones.
  • Social movements need to play a more central role in both supporting and motivating the party. Progressive single-issue associations need to find a more effective way to cohere as a single movement. Are there ways that “new” social movements based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, aboriginal status, religion and environmental defence can work together, alongside organized labour and the alter-globalization movement? It is difficult to forge cooperation among groups based on different identities and goals, even if they are all committed to social justice. There is a need, at least, for a lot more networking. And can the depleted union movement reclaim any of its former vanguard role? The old days probably cannot be recaptured. But one positive development is the emergence of insurgent “movement unions” in the UK, the US, South Africa and elsewhere. These insurgent unions challenge the top-down, bureaucrat-led model in which the role of members is mainly to pay their dues and follow the strategy devised for them by the union’s leaders. Instead, the insurgent bottom-up approach treats workers as fully able to comprehend societal power relations and participate in the planning as well as execution of strategy. It is a liberating approach supportive of a more comprehensive and radical challenge from the left.

What of the Future?

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses the real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

These words from The Communist Manifesto remain as relevant today as when they were written in 1848. But if we do confront, with “sober senses,” the “real conditions” of our lives and the most productive way of conceiving of our relationship to others, where does that lead us?

We will disagree. Some will maintain we must transcend capitalism and build only on cooperative principles. Others will regard such a vision as Utopian, and potentially dangerous. They will contend that we can retain the best elements of market economy and material incentives while forging complementary cooperative arrangements.

I have argued that we don’t need to choose, that socialism is a journey, and that the important thing is to move in the right direction. I also suggested that a fertile debated has generated a lot of ideas about what this direction is and how we can move toward it, incrementally, democratically and at multiple levels.

The big impediments lie in the area of politics and, in particular, political agency. But we have a good idea of what these obstacles are, and how they might be overcome.

Although we cannot predict whether the left will prevail, one thing is certain. The idea of socialism is nearly as old as capitalism. It will never disappear as long as people hunger, not just for survival and security, but also for a meaningful life within community.

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