New Internationalist

The S word

One of the most pitiful moments of the meltdown in Britain came at an early stage, with Northern Rock. Founded in the 19th century as a mutual building society, like many others it had ‘demutualized’ at the end of the 20th century. It wanted the ‘freedom’ to play the very financial instruments that were to be its - and many others’ - downfall.


During a TV interview that followed Northern Rock’s nationalization in February 2008, a ‘New’ Labour Government foot-soldier was asked whether this wasn’t a triumph for the socialist principles of the ‘Old’ Labour Party. The 1983 Labour Party Manifesto had, notoriously, made reference to the nationalization of the banks. This was followed by a Margaret Thatcher electoral landslide and was thereafter styled - not least within the New Labour Party itself - as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.


A quarter of a century on and the New Labour TV interviewee faked rigor mortis - refusing so much as to whisper a word that even Tony Blair had occasionally uttered, at least until he came to power in 1997. Indeed, these days Chancellor [Finance Minister] Alistair Darling insists that banks are ‘better off in the private sector’ - one indicator of just how truly bizarre the meltdown has become.


So now, in Britain as elsewhere, we have a government with values but no principles, disavowing its own history and, thereby, any coherent narrative at all. Why, even dethroned Masters of the Universe can sometimes be heard proposing the full (if not permanent) nationalization of the banks, just as the more erudite among them have admitted from time to time that the most accurate description of the inner workings of capitalism still comes from Karl Marx.


For myself, I had scarcely heard the S word until I lived in Latin America in the early 1970s. Then, on the first 9/11 in 1973, the savage rape of socialist Chile - to save democracy from itself - filled me with a rage that has served me as a pretty reliable bellwether ever since. It provoked in me a fascination with the rich human history behind the turmoil of current events - even at Northern Rock. Without this, little wonder that we’re at a loss to make sense of anything. In Latin America socialism survived brutal tyranny to become an active ingredient in the continent’s current epiphany.


Even so, working as a partizan journalist in Britain, for several years now it has been difficult to pinpoint a receptive audience for socialist ideas. Among many rather more important reasons, that has partly been because of the personal difficulty of remaining loyal to a set of creative principles without suffocating them in the process.


Now, with the meltdown of neoliberal capitalism, a new challenge has arisen. Socialist ideas helped me to imagine where neoliberalism would go, even if they did not endow me with oracular powers. They now have to prove themselves useful in making another world possible.


It would be easy to imagine that because ‘government’ has suddenly been assigned a leading role, for the most part without any democratic mandate or coherent narrative, some sort of ‘socialism’ is happening as if by default. But no kind of socialism, or anything else worth having, ever happened that way - rather, the political default mode has, historically, been more inclined towards disaster.


So I, for one, plan to make a start by turning the S word into ‘socialism’. It would be a great deal simpler if the combination of red with green did not invariably produce black.


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  1. #1 Jan Wiklund 06 Mar 09

    Perhaps we need new words?

    The trouble with the ’s word’ is that it can take any meaning. It was invented in the 1830s to mean ’not a-social’ - i.e. interested in charity. It was appropriated by the labour movement after 1848, but later stolen by all and sundry - Attlee, Stalin, Nehru, Mao, Nasser, Hitler, Velasco Alvarado - until it indicated something like ’favouring state responsibility for peoples' well-being’. And what state can deny this, in some form?

    I guess it fell in disuse because it became too vague. There is no unanimous definition of political terms; they are invented, they sprawl away according to the needs of the moment, and they die when people begin to think that they blur more than they clarify. So also with this word. Perhaps we should invent something new?

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About the author

David Ransom a New Internationalist contributor

David Ransom joined New Internationalist in 1989 and wrote on a range of issues, from green justice to the current financial crisis, before retiring in 2009. He was a close friend of Blair Peach, once worked as a banker in Uruguay and continued to contribute to New Internationalist as a freelancer until shortly before his death in February 2016. He lived on a barge on the waterways of England’s West Country.

His publications include License to Kill on the death of Blair Peach in 1979 and The No Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade. He also co-edited, with Vanessa Baird, People First Economics.

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