On the theme of left renewal (see my post about my new article below), I wanted to call attention to the recent work of Paul Mason in the UK. Mason, if you don't know his work, is one of the most creative thinkers we have these days on the left. He is not content with retreads of the greatest hits of social democracy but is willing to think hard about what's really different about the current iteration of capitalism and what that means for the left. In my view, his book, Postcapitalism, contains more original insights about today's capitalism and left renewal than I have encountered in many dozens of other lefty books. Refreshingly, he is both thoroughly rooted in the history of the left and the various theories that have animated it over time and deeply connected to the dynamics of the capitalism we all live in today.
Mason is now writing a series of essays for the site openDemocracy looking at the big questions facing the left. Here's an excerpt from the latest one, where he discusses what was useful and what was lacking in the 1990's Third Way approach and how that connects to the current crisis of the left.
"If there is a re-founding document of social democracy, it is Anthony Giddens’ book ‘Beyond Left and Right’. Published in 1994 it emerged, like [Eduard] Bernstein’s work, from a critique of orthodox Marxism. Like Bernstein, Giddens argued that the structure of capitalism had changed, creating conditions that made the old programme of state-led socialism permanently impossible. Once crystallised into the doctrine of the Third Way, in the 1998 book of the same name, Giddens’ ideas provided the ideological frame for social-democratic governments in Britain, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands, and for Bill Clinton’s second term in office.
Unlike Bernstein, Giddens never claimed capitalism had become permanently stable; instead it had become permanently mercurial in a way that was potentially benign, so long as progressive governments could take control. The task of social-democrats was to help working class people survive amid the permanent insecurity and disempowerment that globalisation had unleashed. Instead of a programme to clear the capitalist jungle, social-democracy would become a kind of survival kit.
The general crisis of social democracy is happening because the world Giddens described has vanished. The world of Trump, Putin, Erdogan and Xi Jinping is as different to the world of Blair and Schroeder as the street fights of Weimar were to the peaceful, electoral socialism of the 1890s.
Twice, then, in the space of a century, social democracy has entered crisis because its strategic project came to be based on conditions that ceased to exist. If we survey the remnants of centrist social democracy and social liberalism – Renzi in Italy, Schulz in Germany, Hillary Clinton in the USA and the Progress wing of the British Labour Party – the image that springs to mind is of shipwreck survivors clinging to pieces of wreckage.
Schulz clings to Merkel, Renzi wanted to cling to Berlusconi, but they both lost so many votes it became pointless. Hillary Clinton clings to Wall Street. Labour’s Progress wing clings to the possibility that a new, Macron-style centrist force will emerge to save it from the nightmare of the Corbyn leadership. All of them are clinging to a form of globalisation that has failed; and for the Europeans it has become obligatory to cling to the Europe of the Lisbon Treaty – even as this, too, is failing.
To renew social democracy we have to do what Bernstein and Giddens were trying to do: construct an analysis of the world we live in. Both argued from premises concerning the future dynamics of capitalism, the role of the state in the economy, and the atomisation of class structures, cultures and alliances that had prevailed in the decades before them. Significantly, both were critically engaged with, and borrowed eclectically from, the Marxist method of historical materialism – a method of no concern to the party apparatchiks who used their theories as adornments for the project of managing capitalism."
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