Posts filed under Posts in English

The value of community

I find current debates in left-wing circles rather stale. Everything seems to boil down to taxation, the be-all and end-all of progressive politics. Yes, of course we must tax the rich and wealthy, even though I don’t think we ought to punish them (there’s a tinge of Christian pauperism in many a noble mind). Overtaxing the super-rich is hardly a game changer. Globalization has shaken up our world. No matter how wide we cast our nets: the big fish will slip through. But there’s a deeper reason for being skeptical about the ideology of taxation: socialism is not just about the redistribution of wealth and income. It is a lot more than that. We would not move one inch towards a fairer society even if we were able to give substantial handouts to everybody.

Socialism is not about achieving happiness and perpetual harmony, either. This was Marx’s greatest delusion. Socialism is essentially about creating a sense of community and fostering a desire for fairness. This requires a mindset that rejects individualism and profit-making for its own sake. And this is were things have gone pear-shaped. Communism made a complete mess of things: individualism and profit-making were eradicated at the expense of freedom. Too hefty a price to pay. Democratic socialists, who knew better, settled for a third way sitting comfortably between rampant capitalism and freedom-killing communism. Social-democracy triggered the greatest peaceful revolution in the West: it created the Welfare state, which civilized capitalism by lifting millions of people out of poverty, hardship and poor education. Schools, universities and hospitals have sprung up everywhere in Europe. Post-war, Keynesian policies brought into being (and then nourished) a large middle class, the backbone of our societies.

Why, then, has the popularity of democratic socialism reached its lowest ebb? The recent financial crisis is an eye opener: social-democracy prospered as long as capitalism was in good health: steady economic output provided the means to finance the Welfare state. The fortunes of social-democracy were tied to the fortunes of its rambunctious twin brother: capitalism. The division of labour was clear: one would produce goods and sell them; the other would supervise the operations, smoothing out the rough edges. Sometimes fights between the twin brothers broke out, but the ensuing mess could be cleared up. The arrangement worked just fine because we lived in sovereign nation-states. Social-democrats could reap the benefits of growth. All they had to do was tax local businesses and protect national industries (and jobs) by imposing tariffs on imports. And, in times of crisis, they could pour plenty of money into the system. Capitalism, which always tended to go global, made forays into foreign territory. Yet, during the post-war boom, it remained a largely national (but by no means patriotic) phenomenon. The pathological mutation from industrial to financial/speculative capitalism has rendered political and geographical borders totally irrelevant. Free movement of capitals and outsourcing of jobs have dealt a fatal blow to traditional politics. Social-democrats thought they had tamed capitalism once and for all. But when the unbridled horse saw the vast expanse of the prairie, it went native overnight.

So here we are: financiers are striking it rich, while sluggish growth has clipped the wings of social-democratic parties across the board. The obnoxious individualism we thought we had defeated has made a comeback. Social-democrats forgot one basic lesson: even old-fashioned capitalism thrives on greed, and breeds evermore greed. To ignore the DNA of capitalism was a strategic error. Social-democracy did not want to kill the goose that lay the golden eggs. But this implied trusting an erratic animal: the goose is now hidings its eggs away. No way it’s going to share them with us.

There’s a lesson to be learnt. As long as individualism and profit-making for its own sake rule our lives, people will continue to be wrapped up in their egos. When a financial crisis takes the wind out of our sails, this truth will finally dawn on us. The only way out is to build a strong sense of community, the mark of a just society. In order to do this, we need creatively to re-structure our economies. Communists were right in this respect. Yet they were wrong in doing away with free enterprise. In the end, they defeated their own purpose: not only did they suppress liberty; they also made everybody poorer.

We should not seek to destroy capitalism. Rather, we should harness it by means of tighter regulations. But even this is not enough. We need more effective ways to hold the power of behemoths and corporate businesses in check. We should nurture alternative, human-friendly ways of producing prosperity. A grassroots type of wealth is the healthiest. We should promote cooperatives in every conceivable (albeit always democratic) manner. Cooperatives are owned and democratically controlled by their members. They draw on two powerful ideas: profit-sharing and power-sharing. Cooperatives are not inclined to speculate like Wall-street financiers and are more likely to provide useful social services. Moreover, they are a strong antidote to individualism. By fostering community values, they can render entire swathes of our civil societies immune to the frenzy of consumerism and selfishness.

We cannot change human nature. This is another of Marx’s delusions. But we can surely try and build a better society, one based on solidarity and mutual trust. A safe haven where cut-throat business is ruled out and everybody feels at home. Democratic socialists need to win over people’s minds and hearts. This requires sound economic policies and – as Gramsci taught us – a long cultural struggle.

Posted on March 30, 2014 and filed under Posts in English.

Translating socialism

Defining socialism is far from being easy. Countless writers and politicians had a go at it, and most of them only managed to increase our mental confusion. Winston Churchill, who had the gift of clarity, shied away from abstract definitions. He chose to hurl an indictment: “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery”. No matter how elegantly phrased, this sweeping statement smacks of propaganda. It is a disparaging counter-definition held together by a string of negative words (‘failure’, ‘ignorance’, ‘envy’, ‘misery’) which leaves no doubt as to where Churchill stood.

The late Italian socialist leader Pietro Nenni too had a way with words. In a debate, he would have left good old Winston gasping. Nenni gave what I consider to be one of the most powerful definitions of the ideal he devoted his life to:“Il socialismo è portare avanti tutti quelli che sono nati indietro” (literally: “socialism is pushing/bringing forward all those who were born behind”). This sounds a bit unnatural in Italian: collocations are bizarre: “portare avanti”, to push forward, is usually associated with objects or ideas, not people; and one cannot be born “indietro”, that is, behind. Because showing off abstract terms and empty rhetoric is the political disease of so many socialists, Nenni goes for a very simple, down-to-earth, definition. One which embodies, in a nutshell, the moral and political essence of socialism.

Nenni brings to the fore two key words, “avanti” (Avanti!, Forward!, is also the name of the oldest Italian socialist daily) and “indietro”. But there’s a deeper core of meaning: his definition revolves around the accident of birth. Nenni is saying: ‘we don’t want to live in a world where our lives depend on the luck of birth.’ If there’s a will, there’s a way – so the saying goes. There’s another one which is more to the point: beggars can’t be choosers. Most people are trapped by their destiny. We did not choose our family and social class. Some people are born into poverty and ignorance. At a very early age, long before we are able to make any informed choice about our future, our past has already decided what is likely to happen to us. Some children have access to first-rate medical care and excellent schools. Some do not. Guess who is going to make it to the top. Poverty and ignorance are facts of life. But they mustn’t remain so. Socialism aims to bring the unlucky ones into line with their more fortunate fellow human beings. Full stop. No need for elaborate ideologies. Nenni has taught us a great lesson: let’s scrap theories and highfalutin words. If we have doubts about socialism’s relevance in todays’ world, all we have to do is ask ourselves: ‘are there any people who were born behind the rest of us?’ If so, let’s do something about it.

Let me now play with Nenni’s definition. Here are some free translations – variations on the theme:

“Socialism is picking up those who have fallen.”

“Socialism is uplifting the downtrodden.”

 “Socialism is taking care of those left behind.”

“Socialism is throwing a lifeline to people who are drowning.”

“Socialism is catching up on life, and never lagging behind.”

“Socialism if looking after those who are looked down upon.”

“Socialism is refusing to leave anybody behind.”

pietro-nenni.jpg
Posted on February 27, 2014 and filed under Posts in English.

In memory of a diehard socialist

An anti-fascist and democrat at heart, he devoted his life to progressive politics. He upheld social democracy in hard times: he faced the strongest communist party in the West. He was a bold reformist and nailed his colours to the mast while the communists were sneering at him. When he became a national leader, his party’s fortunes had plunged to their lowest (9,6% of the vote, in 1976). He rediscovered his party’s libertarian roots. He didn’t mince his words. He said it loud and clear: a society without democracy and liberty is like fish without water. Communism is a big scam -- and Eurocommunismis baloney, or, to put it more elegantly, the fanciful invention of tricksters who would have us believe in fairytales.

He believed that democratic politics should govern the economy and not viceversa. In the 1970s and 1980s he was the only standard-bearer of social-democracy in his country: he argued in favour of a free market, when it was unpopular to do so in leftist quarters, but demanded strict rules and regulations. He campaigned for an equitable distribution of wealth, for more public spending in education and services for the community. Equal opportunities to all and sundry was his motto.

He stood up to Reagan and defended his country’s sovereignty when no-one else on the left dared to do so. The man definitely had guts. No wonder he was dubbed ‘the strong man in Europe’. Without his consent, the Pershing and Cruise missiles, the weapons that won the Cold War, would never have been installed in the American base in Comiso (Sicily). The Soviets were betting on Europe’s deep-seated fear of a nuclear arms race – the German social-democrats were faltering vis-à-vis their bullying.His courageous decision dealt a powerful blow to the Soviet economy. Soon economic stagnation set in. The sad irony is that he did not benefit from the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though he had done so much – in words and deeds – to bring it about. Neither did his century-old party, which became virtually extinct almost overnight.

He championed the cause of peace and freedom in the Middle East. He was highly respected in the Arab world.

In his lifetime he was both revered as reviled. One day he fell from grace. For years he had been demonized by communists and neo-fascists alike. As soon as the magistrates kicked off their “clean-hands” investigation in the early 1990s, his enemies went in for the kill.  Most opinion-makers fabricated a one-sided version of the events that would sway the public opinion against him. He instantly became the scapegoat of his country’s corruption. After all, the capitalists who owned the major newspapers were eager to get rid of him.

He was Italian through and through, and deeply loved his country. He suffered the humiliation of dying in exile. His name was Bettino Craxi (Milan 1934, Hammamet 2000). 

hammamet.jpg
Posted on January 30, 2014 and filed under Posts in English.