Tuesday, November 15, 2005

It’s Not As Red As You May Think…

I’ve been reading ‘A People’s History of England,’ by A L Morton, which was published in 1938 by the New Left Book Club. The New Left Book Club did a line of books covering a range of topics including; politics, history, philosophy, economics, sociology etc for distribution to its members to stimulate debate and discussion in left wing circles.

The interesting thing about the New Left Book Club was that it demonstrated that the Left used to be very vibrant in terms of ideals and philosophies. There was very vigorous debate as to the shape of a ‘socialist’ society. While, some writers anticipated the state playing a dominant part in society, as a means of shifting the balance toward workers and away from capital, there were others who argued that in fact the state itself posed a problem.

However, what tied all of these debates together was the hypothesis that workers, and the community as of large, created the wealth that capitalists took as their own and that only by redistribution (or the elimination of capital) could society truly be free. Freedom, therefore, was not measured by the ability to earn money, but by freedom from earning money and, hence, freedom from the fear of being in poverty.

Mid 20th Century Social Democracy, even though sneered at by revolutionary socialists, accepted that wealth and power did need to be redistributed in society. Their solution was that the state needed to be an active player to ensure that monetary and social gains from capitalism were distributed out to people in the form of higher wages, benefits etc.

The reason that I make these points is that there appears to be reversal in the manner by which even ‘Social Democrats’ now perceive themselves. This was brought home to me in the various debates over the Workers Charter in which various people made the point that it was too radical. The point is that these claims did not come from the Right, but from people supposedly on the Left. Sadly, the modern Labour Party (and the Left) has been very slow to acknowledge a series of principles that it would not have given second thought to endorsing 30 years ago.

Margaret Thatcher once noted that she would be happy if she fundamentally changed society. And, it appears that she and her various acolytes have done so. They have managed to turn back the clock so completely, that we are now discussing the same issues that people were discussing a little over a hundred years ago. But, this turning back has been more far thorough, with the hegemony even affecting the way in which socialists and social democrats perceive themselves.

No where was the right shift in political hegemony more apparent than with the Alliance. I think that it speaks volumes when a party that promoted what was essentially a conservative social democratic agenda was seen as being dangerously left wing by people on the Left.

‘In the Strange Death of Liberal England” written in the early 1930s, George Dangerfield noted that the ‘new’ Liberals of the late 19th and early 20th Century perceived themselves as being radical socially, but also of being economically responsible. He notes that the Liberals did endorse an extension of the State to promote and protect some of the rights that they had promoted – limited state pensions, health care, unemployment insurance – but, that any restructuring of the economy needed to be underpinned by responsible economic theory (a point of view that was shared by some people in the Labour Parties at the time as well).

However, it became very apparent that the Liberals could not have their cake and eat it too. As Dangerfield notes, the Liberals could not extend their agenda because it increasingly conflicted with the needs of capital, against which they were not prepared to advance any further. This led to radical Liberals joining or supporting Labour as a means of promoting further change.

In a recent speech, Michael Cullen made noises about ‘Modern Social Democracy.’ In effect, what he was really referring to was resurrecting the ‘new’ Liberalism of last century, with which Modern Social Democracy has more in common. ‘Modern Social Democracy’ or The Third Way as it has been dubbed, does not really seek a radical change in the way that society might be organised as it is not designed to redistribute either wealth or power. It accepts that the current economic structure (the free market) is correct so long as it can be merely tweaked. It wants to be socially just, as long as it remains economically responsible, which means being economically conservative.

In a past posting on his blog, Tony Milne asked as to whether New Zealand was becoming like Sweden. I think, apologies Tony if I have you wrong, that he was referring to the idea that Labour like the Swedish Social Democrats was becoming the ‘natural party’ of government (hmmm…I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before and used by another Party…nah…it’s gone…). The Swedish Social Democrats, in coalition with other left parties, have been in government, aside from several very short terms in Opposition, almost continuously since 1932. In that time they have dramatically changed the hegemony of Sweden to the extent that the Social Democrats lost significant votes to the Left Party in 1998, when they mooted changes to the nature of the Swedish Welfare State. The hegemonic change in this country has been quite far reaching too, but it has come from the opposite ideological direction.

Philosophically, the modern Labour Party is as close to social democracy as white bait is to a mature fish...

PS: ...Sorry, I meant alligator....


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