For socialism and democracy

As I mentioned a while ago, in the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve described my political perspective as “social-democratic”. In earlier years, I mostly used “democratic socialist”. My reason for the switch was that, in a market liberal/neoliberal era, the term “socialist” had become a statement of aspiration without any concrete meaning or any serious prospect of realisation. By contrast, “social democracy” represented the Keynesian welfare state I was defending against market liberal “reform”.

In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, things have changed. Socialism still describes an aspiration, rather than a concrete political program, but an aspiration to a better society is what we need now as a positive response to the evident failure of neoliberalism.

On the other side of the ledger, nominally social democratic parties nearly all failed the test of the crisis, accepting to a greater or lesser degree to the politics of austerity. Some, like PASOK in Greece, have paid the price in full. Others, like Labor in Australia, are finally showing some spine. In practice, though, social democracy has come to stand, at best, for technocratic managerialism, and at worst for capitulation to the demands of financial capital.

So, I’ve changed the description of this blog’s perspective to socialist. I haven’t however, adopted the formulation “democratic socialist” which was used, in the 20th century, to emphasise a rejection of the Stalinist claim to have produced “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. That’s no longer necessary.

As has been true for most of the history of the modern world, the only serious threat to democracy is now coming from the right. So, it’s important to defend democracy as well as advancing the case for socialism.

98 thoughts on “For socialism and democracy

  1. One of the problems talking about gender is that it very complicated and easy to get wrong. However my research suggests that it is not sex or even gender roles per se that are the basic problem (most societies seem to have some differentiation in gender roles though it is certainly a problem if they become too distinct and too rigid) but rather the organisation of work in patriarchal institutions and hierarchies.

    In my study, both men and women did ‘caring’ work in voluntary groups, but in paid work in hierarchical organisations it was overwhelmingly done by women. The numbers in the study were small but broader demographic evidence suggests they are representative. I don’t want to oversimplify, but I certainly suggest it’s our institutions, and particularly the way we organise work, that are the major problems.

  2. As a suggestion, we initially need a practical socialist and democratic program looking at current best extant practice around the world. The idea would be take a wide and comprehensive survey of existing economic and political policies in what are generally regarded as mixed economy democratic countries. Every country from “socialist” Sweden to “capitalist” USA would be surveyed. The idea would be to cherry-pick the most socialist and most democratic policies from around the world and put them into one platform after adjusting for policies which are not complementary and then also adjusting for ecological sustainability, real economy workability and fiscal workability to get a sustainable policy set in its entirety.

    The implementation sequence would need to gradualist and logical. Admittedly, in the first iterations this is a reformist path and not a revolutionary path. However, a long reform sequence of relatively small steps could eventually arrive at the effective equivalent of revolutionary change to the political economy. The reform process is begun with the implicit understanding that the long term goal is to go beyond mere reform of capitalism. The long term goal is to reform capitalism out of existence.

  3. Candidly, despite the obloquy hurled at ‘socialism’ over the 20th century, I find the term ‘democracy’ far more problematic. While I certainly favour the informed and free agency of working people and their marginalised peers over public policy, I’d not these days propose ‘democracy’ without this rather longer caveat.

    ‘Democracy’ in the mouths of those with the agency to give it content in societies where power is unevenly distributed (i.e pretty much everywhere) can mean anything at all. Wars can be fought for it, people imprisoned and/or displaced, the rule of capital can be unfettered — in short the worst aspects of civilised usage can sit neatly under its umbrella.

    In short, it’s a vapid slogan rather than a specification for how conflict should be resolved.

    Socialism implies classless communities in which power over policy is authentically a common endeavour, unfettered by the circumstances of one’s birth or contribution to social labour. That will do me, even though it leaves unanswered how we get from here to there.

    I very much favour the unity of form and content which is why, in the interim, I favour policy that nurtures inclusion, equality, solidarity, internationalism, peace, evidence-based reason, ecological integrity and which, if consistently implemented, would lead to what I’d call ‘authentic community’. We are a long way from there, and sadly I doubt I wll survive long enough to see it, but we who have at least sone agency today must press for it as insistently as we can.

  4. I agree with the respective conclusions of Fran and Ikon but it is the detail of how we get there that is the problem (as ever). I think we need to go beyond what is on offer even in the Scandinavian states and aim for complete equality (socialist ideal I guess) but we also need to rethink work and the social organisation of work (and concepts of ownership of course). I take on board what people said above about Marx but still suspect that there is an element of apologise in it, because certainly some of the things Marx said in Capital vol 1 were dismissive of both ‘nature’ (ecosystem) and caring work.

    This still seems to be the case in mainstream economics where it is the work of producing commodities that is seen as real ‘production’ or real work, and nature and caring are only of value in so far as they can be used in, or support, that process.

  5. Sorry autocorrect keeps changing what I’m saying – it should be ‘apologism’ as everyone probably realises!

  6. @Val

    “certainly some of the things Marx said in Capital vol 1 were dismissive of both ‘nature’ (ecosystem) and caring work. ”

    Do you have any easy access to quotes illustrating your point? I think there are at least three possibilities if passages can be found which appear to support your contention.

    (1) The passages are clear, unequivocal, without caveats and in form and context support your point.

    (2) The passages involve caveats or intentional simplifications for illustrative purposes or development of a specific argument.

    (3) The passages involve sarcasm or irony and are not meant to be read literally at all. Marx certainly writes with acerbic irony at times.

    People also learn and evolve intellectually and morally. They don’t always support things they said, wrote or did earlier in their lives. Perfect consistency escapes us all. I think we have to judge a person’s entire oeuvre and known totality of life actions to come to some conclusion of what on balance was their final, mature position and what their legacy is. We won’t find anyone who was perfect of course. And some people who were “great” in some ways can be found to have terribly muddy feet of clay in other ways.

  7. Fascinating. I think the ALP has finally given up on the Chris Bowen inspired project to stop describing its objective as ‘democratic socialisation’. So hard since socialism got equated with central government direct ownership of the means of production as opposed to simply whoever owns it being required to have social not just financial goals. Only Milton Friedman really objected to that.

  8. @Fran Barlow

    I think you have some good points. We need a form of sortition. Anything to remove professional politicians who are now mostly form lawyers, bankers, union officials and other such unsavory and unrepresentative types. But don’t forget about “Democracy at Work”. There is a web site of that title. The Marxist Professor R. D. Wolff also has a lot of worthwhile things to say about democracy at work and worker cooperatives.

    As well as representative democracy, we need inclusive democracy in every workplace plus economic democracy. Economic democracy would entail, among other things, the understanding that excessive wealth disparities are inherently undemocratic. Wealth buys power and corrupts politics in very many ways. Thus, an essential element in removing power disparities is the removal of excessive personal wealth disparities. A limiting factor of 10 would be eminently reasonable. If the Aussie adult minimum wage were currently $40,000 (which it could reasonably be in a more equitable economy) there would be no need or social permission for anyone to earn an income (from any and all sources) of more than $400,000.

    Australia’s per capita wealth per adult is currently about $225,000. Again, there is no need in any way for any person to have more than ten times this, that is to say $2.25 million accumulated wealth in today’s dollars.

    We could arrive at this state over time by a raft of measures. People’s expectations could be conditioned over time until the point was reached that scarcely anybody could conceive or feel the need to have more than that (i.e ten times an average living income). Indeed people who verbalized or attempted to enact such a “need” would come to be regarded with moral opprobrium as being anti-socially greedy and the moral equivalent of those who advocate the return of slave-owners and slaves.

  9. Pr Q said:

    In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, things have changed. Socialism still describes an aspiration, rather than a concrete political program, but an aspiration to a better society is what we need now as a positive response to the evident failure of neoliberalism.

    Well we can all dream. Vague “aspirations for a better society” are a recipe for con-artists and an invitation for tyranny, when things go pear-shaped as they invariably do.

    Anyone proposing a comprehensive reconstruction of the national (global?) economy has an obligation to present the citizens with a concrete program, components of which can be subject to piece-meal criticism. Poppers strictures against “wholesale social engineering” still apply.

    This goes double for proponents of 20thC “socialism”, most of whom either actively justified, or at least conveniently ignored, the genocidal crimes committed in the name of this ideology. With precious little in the way of mea culpa, which the erstwhile supporters of fascism at least had the decency to do.

    Pr Q said:

    So, I’ve changed the description of this blog’s perspective to socialist. I haven’t however, adopted the formulation “democratic socialist” which was used, in the 20th century, to emphasise a rejection of the Stalinist claim to have produced “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. That’s no longer necessary.

    This is really putting the glass up to ones blind eye. It implies that all forms of (“Stalinist”) dictatorial socialism have long since been consigned to the Dustbin of History. And thus contemporary socialists need not concern themselves with the totalitarian potential of the state owning all forms of enterprise capital.

    Most people with eyes to see note that the PRC is a predominantly state-owned economy, run by the Communist party. Which is still nominally committed to a socialist market economy. And that this is perfectky consistent with, indeed amplifies, socialisms totalitarian potential.

    The Party still manages political affairs in a soft-core Stalinist way. And one does not have to subscribe to the strong version of Hayeks “Road to Serfdom” to acknowledge that the status of China as a “company town” makes Stalinist political control much easier and more potent. As Orwell said, in his sympathetic review:

    It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.

    The same criticism goes for the sundry other remaining forms of socialist construction still littered aboud the post-Cold War, from Castros Cuba through Kims Korea onto the Chavezinistas Venezuela.  Not to mention the “African road to socialism” being paved by tyrants such as Mugabe and Zuma. This socialist ideological zoo does not inspire hope for a progressive future.

    At this point a typical SJW will come back with a “no true Scotsman” line suggesting that a Marxist-Leninist political administration is not really “Leftist” or that a state-owned economy is not really “socialist”. I trust Pr Q will not resort to such transparent ruses.

    Pr Q said:

    As has been true for most of the history of the modern world, the only serious threat to democracy is now coming from the right.

    The phrase “most of the history of the modern world” is a slippery construction. If one wants to start the clock on political modernity from, say, the English Glorious Revolution in 1688 then sure then, sure, for most of the past 500 years the Right-wing has been the strongest ideological opponent to democracy. Typically in the form of the ancien regime coalition of feudal landowners and clerical ecclesiasts digging its heels in to resist extensions of franchise and civil rights. But the last vestiges of ancien regime had vanished with the fall if European imperial houses after WW1.

    But if one fast-forwards modernity to the past 100 years, ie living memory, then Leftist totalitarian socialism has been the most invidious opponent of democracy, winning hands down.  That is measured over both time (1917 to present) and population (most of Eurasia, plus large fractions of Africa, middle east and Latin America).  Pretty much all of these regimes combined socialist economy plus dictatorial polity.   It is a natural fit given that the top-down management principle applies to both socialist Party Boss and socialist factory Boss.

    When one turns to the contemporary West the story does not get much better. The emotional fuel of contemporary Leftism is driven by hate of conservative cultural identity rather than hope for progressive social equity. The Left have more or less abandoned a general theory of Progress in favour of a free-floating SJW program of hate …(fill in the oppressor blank). Clintons “basket of deplorables” “gaffe” was a dead-giveaway. Whatever one thinks of Trump, one cannot trust a movement that feels that way to run an entire economy.

    I would have more confidence in contemporay socialism if they took on board George Orwells criticism of socialists:

    there is the horrible — the really disquieting — prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

    By contrast, the contemporary Right-wing is mostly majoritarian “populist”, which is nothing if not democratic in temper.  (The conservative Visegrad governments have not, despite Leftist hysteria, suppressed democratic opposition.  Trump has not done anything except energise Leftist opposition.)

    And the populist Rights most insistent political demand is the restoration of free speech rights in civil society. A demand which has been bitterly resisted by the “liberal” media-academia complex, who are mostly committed to political correct thought policing of any criticism of their scientifically discredited cultural ideology, a betrayal of both their scholarly vocation and civic obligation.

  10. @Ikonoclast
    I am going out now Ikon but I will send the quotes later, probably tomorrow. As per the discussion before, Maria Mies is also very useful in analysing this issue but I don’t know if I have any quotes handy,

  11. @Jack Strocchi
    There’s a few valid points amongst your scattergun, Jack Strocchi, but there’s several egregiously invalid ones as well. In your final three or four paras you are peddling the Andrew Bolt view of the world, which is to attack a fictional Leftist strawman. The Left “driven by hate of conservative cultural identity” doesn’t exist. You can’t put Clinton’s name forward as a representative of the Left. If she believes in anything, it is probably the neoliberal world view which is antithetical to Leftist social justice and environmentalism.

    The contemporary Right in the USA and Australia is most assuredly attempting to suppress democratic opinion. In the USA, through blatant gerrymandering and voter suppression; in Australia not so successfully, but attempts have been made to close electoral rolls early, deny the vote to prisoners and declare certain people non-citizens.

    In Australia, the liberal-media-academia complex doesn’t exist. The majority of newspapers are owned by News Corporation which peddles a peculiar Rightist world view which is riddled with inconsistencies: demanding that 18C be rolled back and yet running campaigns of intimidation against people who express views that the company doesn’t like: Gillian Triggs, Yassmin Abdel-Magied for example. Climate scientists for another example. So much for free speech. With AFR in their stable, you can’t even rationally label Fairfax as Leftist.

  12. “over both time (1917 to present) and population (most of Eurasia, plus large fractions of Africa, middle east and Latin America). Pretty much all of these regimes combined socialist economy plus dictatorial polity. It is a natural fit given that the top-down management principle applies to both socialist Party Boss and socialist factory Boss.”

    It was/is rather post western colonial dictatorial kleptocracies installed and maintained by and acting at the direction and serving at the pleasure of the economic and military hit men of right-wing ‘democracy’ touting western governments themselves mere minions of Western far right capitalist elites who act solely to pleasure themselves. You don’t have to look far from home either, eg right next door, the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide and installation of the West’s darling Suharto.

  13. @Jack Strocchi

    Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell) also wrote this:

    “The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”

    And this;

    “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”

    Eric Arthur Blair was a misanthrope I guess and capable of careless hate speech if he didn’t watch himself. Nevertheless, he managed to remain “for democratic Socialism” as he understood it.

  14. @Ikonoclast
    Hi Ikon
    In answer to your question, I have reproduced a passage of analysis from my thesis below. I apologise for the length of this but I thought it would make the point more clearly than just the quotes by themselves.

    Marxist theory analyses societies in which private ownership, commodity exchange, capital accumulation and nature as a source of ‘use value’ were already established. Karl Marx critiqued private ownership and capital accumulation but not commodity production and exchange, nor the idea of nature as use value. In Capital, Marx (1944) (first published 1867) acknowledged other forms of social organisation, including what he described as “the patriarchal industries of a peasant family” (1944, p 51), but he did not include them in his analysis. Marx was interested in the value that “men” [sic] added by their labour to that which was provided by “nature” (1944, p 31), but only in the production of goods for trade and exchange, not the value added by unpaid subsistence and domestic work (Mies, 1998). Moreover, while Marx acknowledged that ‘nature’ provided raw materials, he did not analyse the contribution of nature, but took it as a given. Indeed, Marx used a specifically gendered metaphor when speaking of “material wealth, of use values”:

    “As William Petty puts it, labour is its father and the earth its mother” (1944, p 31).

    (William Petty was a 17th century English economist and theorist).

    This exemplifies Merchant’s (1989) analysis that ‘men of science’ saw both nature and women as belonging to the sphere which men ‘improved’. Marx (1944) acknowledged that this kind of society was the product of historical development but did not analyse this process, although, as previously discussed [in the thesis] Engels later attempted to do so and asserted that Marx would have, had he lived longer. Marxist feminists later attempted to use a schema of ‘production and reproduction’, which recognised that labour had to be ‘reproduced’, to analyse women’s unpaid work of caring and procreation (Caine, 1998, p 70). Marx, in discussing this issue in Capital, actually elided maternity and the caring work of women, stating only that payment to a worker had to include enough for “his children” (1944, p 121). Even without this elision, however, the Marxist feminist schema is unsatisfactory because it positions the adult worker as the normative person and locates caring work as subordinate, rather than understanding the work of caring as work in its own right (O’Brien, 1989). Thus, while Marxist theory is useful in understanding some forms of inequality and exploitation, it does not provide a sound basis for an ethical position that values caring and ecosystems (‘nature’) in their own right.

  15. Val,

    Re gender issues, this is not the best article to suggest Marx was a bit more nuanced than Mies perceives him to be. But it is the best article I can find quickly.

    Re ecological issues search Monthly Review and more widely for the term metabolic rift.

    To negatively criticise Marx for not developing gender studies and ecological studies to 2018 standards (if you are doing this) would be much like critcising Ada, Countess of Lovelace (Augusta Ada King-Noel nee Byron) for not developing the field of programming and software engineering to 2018 standards. Both had collaborators (Engels-Marx , Babbage-Lovelace) and both, with those collaborators, inaugurated new fields of endeavour leading to a great many subsequent advances.

    “In his book, Idea Makers, Stephen Wolfram defends Lovelace’s contributions. While acknowledging that Babbage wrote several unpublished algorithms for the Analytical Engine prior to Lovelace’s notes, Wolfram argues that “there’s nothing as sophisticated—or as clean—as Ada’s computation of the Bernoulli numbers. Babbage certainly helped and commented on Ada’s work, but she was definitely the driver of it.” Wolfram then suggests that Lovelace’s main achievement was to distill from Babbage’s correspondence “a clear exposition of the abstract operation of the machine—something which Babbage never did.” – Wikipedia.

  16. This is the left today. Not thinking enough about high wages, full employment, raising the tax free threshold, small business opportunity and debt slavery. More interested in weird gender and other slave issues. Totally misdirected from the top. But the environmental issues are more than valid. At least most of them. We have our own homegrown answer to these problems. Its called “permaculture.” Whatever the question is permaculture is likely to be the right answer.

  17. @Ikonoclast
    Hi Ikon, I read the linked article and I read some of the earlier discussion about ‘metabolic rift’ in this thread (although I can’t say I’m fully across it yet). There could be an extended discussion about this but as the discussion in this blog has mainly moved on to the next post now, I’ll just try to summarise my thoughts for now.

    I’m not ‘negatively criticising’ Marx in the way you suggest, rather saying (as I said in my comment above) that a Marxist approach can help us understand aspects of inequality but isn’t sufficient alone for addressing the complex, related issues of inequality and environmental degradation that face us now. Marx may have had the basis for a more complex understanding of gender and nature (ecosystem), but given that we now have ecofeminist scholars like Merchant and Salleh who have extended that understanding, why not draw on them? It doesn’t mean rejecting all Marxist insights.

    In particular I think such scholars (and many more) give us a basis for an ethic of care towards other people, other species and ecosystems rather than seeing them primarily in terms of their value (whether direct use value or exchange value) to us.

    Apologies in advance for any typos I’m doing this on my mobile in the tram and sometimes when I try to check what I’ve written I just end up losing it all.

  18. @Graeme Bird
    I will try to explain briefly some of those ‘weird gender issues’ so that you can have a better informed understanding and not write rude and patronising comments in future. In simple terms, patriarchal capitalist systems such as the one imposed on Australia 230 years ago, saw nature (ecosystem) or country as something to be used and exploited for profit, and imposed hierarchical systems of competition and inequality. Within this, the work of caring was seen as an inferior, subordinate sphere.

    If you believe that caring for people, other species and ecosystem is important (as I think most permaculture users would), then presumably you wouldn’t agree with such a system.

  19. Geoff Edwards @89 said:

    The Left “driven by hate of conservative cultural identity” doesn’t exist. You can’t put Clinton’s name forward as a representative of the Left. If she believes in anything, it is probably the neoliberal world view which is antithetical to Leftist social justice and environmentalism.

    Actually HR Clinton is a perfect exemplar of the grotesque perversion of post-modernist liberalism in both its Right- and Left-wing aspects. In one of her many self-destructively stupid campaign speeches she managed to link the fortunes of Wall Street to the rainbow coalition of Mean Street:

    “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the L.G.B.T. community?,” she said, using an abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

    At each question, the crowd called back with a resounding no.

    This encapsulates what Steve Sailer calls the High/Low v Middle Culture War that has fuelled the Left ever since it lost the rusted-on support of the white working class around about 1980. (I sometimes refer to it as globalists/tribalists v nationalists). Precisely the demographic that Trump wedged and who won him the election.

    But if you dont buy Clinton as a Leftist, then I see you and raise you with Corbyn’s faction, particularly the adorable Seamus Milne. Theres a guy who never met a traditional cultural identity he didnt hate.

    Hatred of the traditional nation is what is driving the post-modern liberal Left. And they want us to trust them with all the money in the world.

  20. @jack strocchi
    Are you being serious, Jack? Is there no nuanced position anywhere between machine politician HR Clinton and Jeremy Corbyn?

    Katharine Betts’ differentiation between cosmopolitans and parochials is another description for globalists versus nationalists, but this axis cuts right across a Left versus Right axis. The cosmopolitans are more likely to be jetsetting financiers or captains of industry than the Leftists whom you want to push into that pigeonhole. Your typology doesn’t explain why News Corporation, which is so dismissive of its host nation state that it doesn’t even pay taxes here, sits to the very Right of the political spectrum. And nobody, repeat nobody in Australia is waging a cultural war more vigorously than News Corporation.

    It is easy to make fun of the archetypal post-modernists who don’t believe in bedrock anything, but these don’t represent the Left. There are some overlapping causes, that’s all.

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