Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bring Back the Red Menace!

If you enjoy paid vacations, free healthcare and a pension, you might
want to thank this guy.
I'm guessing here, but I'd say every second opinion piece produced online or in print over the last three months has fallen into one of three camps: Why Trump? Why Brexit? Why rabid, right-wing ethno-nationalism? And here's my answer to all three questions: the collapse of the USSR in 1991. More specifically, the eclipse of communism as a political, economic alternative to capitalism. Communism's utility as an antidote to capitalism didn't come from direct opposition, it came from its magnetic pull on socialist parties.

In David Sasson's 1998 book One Hundred Years of Socialism, he makes the case that the presence of communist states and strong communist parties in places like France and Italy effectively emboldened socialist parties in their demands for worker's rights and strong social welfare policies. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the western political world, particularly in Europe, was terrified by the possibility of communist parties coming to power. The fear of communism forced or encouraged parties of the left and centre, and even some on the right, to move their politics further to the left as a strategy to draw the teeth of the red menace. The idea was simple: if the working classes were well, or at least adequately, provided with living wages, legal protection for unions, free healthcare, pensions, low or free university tuition, and unemployment benefits, then they would be less likely to turn to communist parties. Socialist parties in particular benefited from the red menace. The perceived threat of communism allowed them to build strong social welfare policies, nationalize various industries, and establish high tax rates for the wealthy. These policies were palatable to the middle classes and above because the communist alternative was far more alarming.

The appeal of communism and the influence of the USSR began to decline with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and accelerated with their invasion of Afghanistan eleven years later. The failure of communist economies to provide a consumerist lifestyle equal to that of the west was yet another, and equally important factor, in its decline. With the election of Thatcher in 1979 and Reagan in 1980, the conservative counter-revolution against the social welfare state was underway. When the USSR shifted to a more western and liberal outlook under Gorbachev, and then broke apart, in '91, conservatives were quick to claim that this was the inevitable triumph of capitalism.

The end of communism produced two swift, and parallel, responses. One was the rightward shift of leftist parties, most notably Britain's Labour Party, which morphed into so-called New Labour. These new socialist parties embraced capitalist concepts like globalization, deregulation, lower corporate taxes,  and privatization once they no longer had to contend with competing communist parties. The other immediate response came from capitalists and rightists who became solidly triumphalist in their outlook. For them, capitalism had been proven to be the only viable political/economic reality. Parties of the left offered minimal or non-existent resistance to this view, and from '91 onwards voters in the developed world were left with a choice between different flavours of capitalism. Terms like "working class" and "underclass" disappeared from the lexicon of leftist parties to be replaced by the more aspirational "middle class," a group everyone was trying to get in or stay in.

The triumphalism of capitalism since 1991 has led to what I'd call Manichean capitalism--any public policy which adds to a company's bottom line is incontrovertibly good, while one which hinders or reduces profitability is bad in an almost existential sense. We've now reached a stage where being opposed to capitalism is seen in many quarters as being deviant or immoral or criminal. The angry reactions from the right to the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 are an illustration of this. More recently, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour party produced a vituperative reaction in British right wing circles because Corbyn was, by their definition, an extreme leftist. By the political standards of the 1960s and '70s Corbyn was your average leftist, but in 2015 he was a "loony" lefty, to use the parlance of Brit tabloids. The prospect of someone of that ilk becoming PM was enough to send the capitalist establishment into a fury of denunciations, smear jobs, and dark warnings about the future of Britain.

Now that the major political parties in most developed countries have tacitly agreed that capitalism, preferably the Manichean variety, is the bedrock upon which all public policy is built, how do they differentiate between themselves come election day? Through nationalism, sidebar issues, scandal-mongering and identity politics. Political policy and campaigning built around the concept of national programs that benefit the majority have gone by the wayside, replaced by bickering over local and regional interests, and venomous arguments over people who are supposedly getting more than their fair share. In Britain, the tabloids work tirelessly to demonize migrants, so-called "benefits cheats", and a dozen other fringe and minority groups, all of whom, according to the tabs, are parasitical in one way or another. The last US election was built on scapegoating minority groups.

Whether it's a government of the left or right, the developed world is in a rush to abandon the activist social welfare policies that characterized governments in the post-war era. Ethno-nationalism, the most abstract, meaningless and vicious of political concepts, is what has often replaced it, Communism (in theory if not always in practice) acted as a counterweight to this political philosophy by taking a rational, analytical and critical look at the relationship between labour and capital. And perhaps more importantly, communism kept alive the concept of actions taken for the collective good. What we're left with now is irrational invective, jingoism and hate-mongering. Communism was never a panacea, but it's role in retarding the growth of Manichean capitalism has largely been overlooked.


Lumpy Lang said...

“If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”

LD Trotsky - Transitional Program (1938) :-)

Cary Watson said...

What he said.