New Internationalist

Rescuing socialism

December 2009

If the world is to recover from the current financial crisis, it is socialism, not capitalism, that must be revived. Jeremy Seabrook considers the Left’s past, and asks where it may find its future.

The Left is so demoralized that even in the worst recession in 70 years, it poses no threat to capitalism. Most who ‘like to think of themselves as on the Left’ (that refuge of fantasy), ritually deplore the loss of popular support, bleakly placing faith in ‘the swing of the pendulum’ or telling each other that ‘the world has changed’ and we must make the best of it.

Why socialism capitulated after so faint a struggle continues to mystify socialists. In Britain, the 1984 miners’ strike was seen as an heroic last stand; but the ideological battle had long been conceded. Socialism perished long before the Thatcher years; the roots of the labour movement were never deep enough to prevent it from being assimilated into the system it came into existence to oppose.

Socialists conceded defeat by accepting the capitalist evaluation of wealth. Instead of resisting the melting down of all the riches of the world to money, socialism yielded early to the reductive calculus of its enemy. In doing so, the nobility and beauty of its vision of alternatives were forfeited. The baleful ghost of Marx hovers over this process: his admiration for a world convulsed by the dynamic upheaval of capitalism doomed his socialism, which became a short-lived heretical aberration. And a kind of indelible afterglow of Marx continues to stain what is now no alternative to capitalist growth and expansion.

Yet throughout the industrial era there have been many more thoughtful and humane definitions of wealth. Leaving aside the magnificent ambiguities of scriptural admonitions (‘Remove from me vanity and lies; give me neither poverty nor riches’), denunciation of capitalist accumulation has always been widespread, although it has been drowned out in recent years by the triumphal march of the universal market.

Oliver Goldsmith, as early as 1770, described the effects of this limited understanding of wealth. In The Deserted Village, he deplored ‘ten thousand baneful arts combined to pamper luxury and thin mankind’. He spoke of the labourer’s ‘best riches’ as ‘ignorance of wealth’ and railed against the ‘rage of gain’. His long, sad poem was prompted by agricultural ‘improvements’, which enclosed the commons and evicted labourers. It speaks today to the uprooted of Africa and Asia; and reminds us how an earlier critique of wealth was buried beneath the obsessive productivism of industrialism – a critique later dismissed as Utopian by a more ‘manly’ Marxism.

Not all alternative accounts of wealth were formulated by socialists. In Signs of the Times, Thomas Carlyle in 1829 protested against the materialism of a mechanistic society: ‘All our systems and theories are but so many froth-eddies or sandbanks, which from time to time [Nature] casts up, and washes away. When we can drain the Ocean into mill-ponds, and bottle up the Force of Gravity, to be sold by retail, in gas jars; then may we hope to comprehend the infinitudes of man’s soul under formulas of Profit and Loss.’

A covetous machine

John Ruskin spoke in 1862 of the ‘delusion’ of political economy, which sees the human being as merely a ‘covetous machine’. He declared: ‘All wealth is intrinsic, and is not constituted by the judgment of men. This is easily seen in the case of things affecting the body; we know that no force of fantasy will make stones nourishing, or poison innocent.’ Although he reckoned without the advertising industries of the 20th century, which were largely dedicated to disproving this conviction.

Socialism perished long before the Thatcher years; the roots of the labour movement were never deep enough to prevent it from being assimilated into the system it came into existence to oppose

William Morris in 1883 made the distinction between wealth and riches. ‘It is not wealth which our civilization has created, but riches, with its necessary companion, poverty; for riches cannot exist without poverty, or in other words, slavery. All rich men must have someone to do their dirty work, from the collecting of their unjust rents to the sifting of their ash heaps. Under the dominion of riches we are masters and slaves.’ William Morris saw humanity wasted, in one way or another, by poverty or excess.

Voices have always argued for another understanding of wealth – the Romantic poets, 19th century novelists, political radicals and revolutionaries. In 1854 Thoreau wrote in Walden, ‘most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind’. Half a century later, Thorsten Veblen, in his Theory of the Leisure Class, conceived the idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’: the function of the rich was to flaunt their ornamental inutility before the toilers of industry.

In the 1920s, some of these ideas were taken up in India by Gandhi, who said he could not draw a sharp, or indeed any, distinction between economics and ethics. In Young India, in 1928, he wrote: ‘According to me the economic constitution of India and, for the matter of that, the world, should be such that no-one should suffer from want of food and clothing. In other words, everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make both ends meet.

Denunciation of capitalist accumulation has always been widespread, although it has been drowned out in recent years by the triumphal march of the universal market

‘And this ideal can universally be realized only if the means of production of the elementary necessaries of life remain in the control of the masses. These should be freely available to all as God’s air and water are, or ought to be; they should not be made vehicles of traffic for the exploitation of others. This monopolization by any country, nation or group of persons would be unjust. The neglect of this simple principle is the cause of destitution that we witness today not only in this unhappy land but in other parts of the world.’

In the contemporary period, Ivan Illich was the most articulate critic of faith in industrialized wealth. His vision transcended the mere ‘externalities’ of industrial production, and he wrote of the ‘counterproductivity’ within each commodity, ‘a new kind of disappointment which arises “within” the very use of the good purchased’, which drives the desire for more. ‘Economists, who are increasingly competent to put price-tags on externalities, are unable to deal with negative internalities and cannot measure the inherent frustration of captive clients, which is something other than a cost.’ Illich saw the industrial institutionalization of human abilities to do things for themselves and each other as a measureless impoverishment.

Utopian socialism

Andre Gorz recognizes that the limited nature of human needs constitutes an obstacle to economic ‘rationality’, and traces how this rationality transformed the desire for sufficiency into a compulsion for more. Enough, the enemy of growth, must be expunged from the economic dictionary, which depends upon a concept of perpetual scarcity in a world of unparalleled abundance.

It is sometimes cautiously conceded that some human activities may be off-limits to the economic calculus – love, friendship, joy, the life of the spirit. On the other hand, the sinister economists of happiness are at work even in these sombre times, seeking to make economic entities out of human experiences hitherto resistant to such violence.

The present financial crisis has tentatively opened up some uneasy discussion of other ways of looking at the world. But this will pass. When governments have rescued banks, pumped money into mighty corporations too big to fail, business as usual will be restored. The work of the hour is all about mending a broken system, a repair job, patching up the crumbling masonry of financial architecture. It is not about alternatives.

Which brings us back to the crisis of socialism. While socialism remained a shadow cast by the blinding light of capitalism, it had no independent existence; and was eclipsed by the successes of capitalist consumerism. The dominant paradigm always parasitically inhabited the shell of its opponent. While revolutionaries may have glumly awaited the dictatorship of the proletariat, and socialists worked for equality for a downtrodden working class, liberal hopes resided in helping the left-behind, protecting the poor by safety nets, as though these were a troupe of travelling acrobats.

But there is a strange and wonderful convergence between the rhetoric of older critics of industrialism and the contemporary Greens. The Greens are not a newfangled idea conceived in the head of the maladjusted of modernity. They make heard once more suppressed or forgotten voices clamouring at the doors of despair, which remain nevertheless barred against their messages of liberation. Of course the Greens, too, are riven by an archaic dualism of Right and Left. There are those who would preserve the planet and let the people perish; but the implications of the scarcity of material, and the abundance of human, resources implies a far more radical and just global partition of the good and necessary things of life.

Enough, the enemy of growth, must be expunged from the economic dictionary, which depends upon a concept of perpetual scarcity in a world of unparalleled abundance

To ‘save the world’, it is not capitalism that needs to be rescued but socialism; and if the Greens articulate once more what had been drowned out in the noisy triumphalism of capital, it does not matter what they are called. ‘Utopian socialism’ no longer consists of castles in the air, for what could have been more Utopian than the spoiled proletarian paradise of Marx?

Perhaps earlier testimonies were ineffective against what looked like progress. But how different it appears today, in the light of climate change, resource depletion, the onslaught against the biosphere, the extinction of ancient ways of life which, whatever their failings, respected a nature they had not laid siege to.

Thus it is that all mainstream political parties now advocate an alternative agenda. The trouble is, they try to implement it by means of wealth-creationism, the dogma that has brought the world to this pass. Anything, rather than recognize the existence of a socialism which, no longer dependent upon its capitalist progenitor, possesses an emancipatory power still untried in a world of waste and want. More radical than Marxism or the miserable contortions of an exhausted Labourism, it bases itself on wealth defined by the limitless forms of free exchange, gifts, services voluntarily performed by people out of compassion and fellow-feeling, all the mercy, pity and tenderness unenclosed by an invasive market, qualities which are, and always have been, the source of true riches.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

This column was published in the December 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 HGodwinson 12 Nov 10

    The century of the self

    It is interesting to read an essay that cites real text from past centuries, as opposed to assuming that it was always this way. Any day you read information you'd not known before is a good (and often rare) day.

    Though the points are well made, I feel that that the issue of...

    ’the roots of the Labour movement were never deep enough to prevent it from being assimilated into the system it came into existence to oppose.’

    ...may miss a key point in history. To explain better than I, there is a fascinating documentary, commissioned by the BBC in 2002, named ’The century of the self’, in which episode 3 of 4 explains how the opposition to consumerism during the 1960's was perverted by instilling an implicit concept of 'individualism' in people's minds... ’Why should we pay out for lesser people to lead lesser lives?’ This meant, that by the 1980's there was a strong sense of “I don't want to be a number in a machine”, which was the mantra repeated by Thatcher and Regan.

    Episode 4 of 4 then explains why the left wing parties, the Democrats and the Labour, abandoned their Left wing policies in the 1990’s in order to seduce the swing voters (middle-class, suburban, house wives, etc). So, the left wing, became center-right, and the idea of socialism became an abhorrent assault on God-given individuality and personal culpability that capitalism ’promoted’.

    The century of the self, episodes one to four, (58 minutes each) can be found on Google Videos and streamed for free.

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This article was originally published in issue 428

New Internationalist Magazine issue 428
Issue 428

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