By Shayn McCallum
Social Europe Journal
PES convention, a historic gathering of socialist/social democratic activists and leaders, is over. At the end of it all, the feeling is both one of hope and of urgency at the enormity and difficulty of the task ahead. The testimony of fallen leaders such as George Papandreou underlines the desperation of the times we are living in and forces even the most complacent among us to sit up in alarm and acknowledge that we are entering the last stages of a long counter-revolution against the achievements of post-war social democracy.
However, we need to be honest and start with a big “mea culpa” before proceeding. The truth is, social democrats have not just been the victims of a creeping coup by the markets against the efficacy of democracy, they (we) have, at times, been active collaborators in this process of marketization.
I hesitate to throw accusations of betrayal or stick “Quisling” labels on the foreheads of past leaders or call for some cathartic act of repudiation, this would be unfair. After the conservative (really free-market radical) onslaught of the 1980’s and the ideological confusion brought on in the liberal intellectual war on socialism after the collapse of the counterfeit “real” socialism of Eastern Europe and the USSR, the belief, that so many of our comrades took on, that all illusions in an alternative society must be shelved is absolutely understandable even if tragically mistaken.
Martin Schulz, in his fiery closing remarks at the PES convention, reminded us electrifyingly, in a way that many of us have been longing to hear from our leaders, that we are socialists after all and that socialism remains, at its core, the opposite of capitalism. Capitalism means the rule of capital, socialism means the subordination of the economy to the social through the mechanism of democracy. We are seeing more clearly than ever that these two approaches are irreconcilable opposites.
This, of course, does not mean that there is some prescriptive model of socialism which we are attempting to impose as an alternative to the rule of capital, rather it means that we need to work to create new, flexible and open-ended systems of empowerment through which people can take back control of their lives collectively and individually.
Some comrades in the social democratic movement prefer to speak of a “decent capitalism”. The remedies they propose to the situation we are in are both reasonable and eminently supportable as a start towards a transformation of our societies. I do not disagree fundamentally with their proposals but I object to the label. By using the label “capitalism”, even “decent capitalism”, we are symbolically agreeing to be limited to the terrain in which our enemies are sovereign. They have their Hayek to hurl in our faces. “Decent capitalism” seems timid and unambitious as a label. Worse, who is it targeting? It seems like an attempt to win over or plead a case before those forces least interested in decency. The logic of an unfettered market is intrinsically indecent.
If, to reassure a fearful populace, we wish to emphasise our constructiveness, the fact that we are seeking to preserve what is good in what we have built over history, we need to focus not on the repugnant economic system which has always worked against us but on our greatest achievement, which is democracy. We must stress that we want a social and democratic economy. Such an economy, whilst against the rule of capital, is not intrinsically against business or well regulated markets, indeed, nothing has been as bad for most businesses as unfettered capitalism which unleashes destruction on small and medium-sized enterprises especially (not necessarily Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” either). We must be bold enough, as social democrats, to clearly state that we are for the rule of people (i.e. democracy) and opposed to the rule of capital (i.e. capitalism). Arguments that there are a “good capitalism” and a “bad capitalism” seem naïve and confused and are portrayed as such by our enemies.
The PES convention demonstrated that social democracy is indeed alive in the 21st century and that it is still capable of producing inspiring ideas and leaders. Now it is time to be both brave and clear. Timid half-measures or a shame-faced socialism not only fail to convince voters, they allow our enemies to walk all over us. We must become the bold, uncompromising defenders of the sovereignty of the people in the face of the arrogance of capital. We should be clear also in naming our enemy; our opponents are not conservatives, they are neo-liberal revolutionaries standing for the rule of the few over the many and it is now the task of socialists and social democrats to do what needs to be done to reassert the rights of the many over the arrogance of the few.