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.