Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The death of ideas? (2001)

From the July 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the Sunday before polling-day, in his Letter From America, Alistair Cooke commented on the General Election by recalling the time, when against the odds, he correctly predicted a victory for conservatism. This was in 1970 when Wilson, who was expected to win, lost to Heath. Coming up to date Cooke again predicted a victory for conservatism but not for the Conservative Party under Hague. This was to be a victory for the conservatism of the Labour Party under Blair. Cooke has not been the only one to notice that leading politicians are more or less interchangeable. When the Labour Party sought to discredit Hague with a poster showing him with a Margaret Thatcher wig, the Economist replied by showing Blair with a similar Thatcher make-over. In his talk, Cooke described Blair as a “rightist liberal” and it is true that Thatcher, Hague and Blair have more in common than they have against each other.

Cooke also related these similarities to politics in America where there has been a similar obliteration of differences between the Republicans and Democrats. Both in the United States and Britain ideas and principles seem to have disappeared from the mainstream of public debate. This is being described as a time of “post-ideological politics”, or, perhaps more commonly, as the view that “all politicians are the same”.

And this was confirmed by the spokespeople of the three main parties who addressed the issues of the election not so much as people with differing ideas about the kind of world we should be living in but merely as accountants arguing over ways of managing the economy. The big questions were “should we have more tax or less tax”. “How can we make the system more efficient?” “How can we reduce tax and still spend more on health, education and the police.” The public view of politicians is already low. They are often seen as careerists and opportunists or even as liars and sleaze merchants. But with all the questions about how best to run the economy and the petty managerial differences that were blown up around them they have added to their dubious reputations by also becoming utterly boring. Never was politics less inspired.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
However, it is wrong to see all this as the death of political ideas. The fact that politicians have become mere state functionaries means they have come to share the same ideas. These assume a continuation of the status quo. During the election, it was massively agreed by all the main parties that whoever won or lost, the future would be capitalist business as usual. And whilst it has become common for politicians to be depicted in the image of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, what we don't see is very much analysis pointing to the reasons why this has come about. It is mainly because governments have to react to economic conditions over which they have little control and these pressures take no account of the aspirations different governments may have.

This economic framework within which governments have to act, which severely limits their political options and so tends to cast them in the same mould, was acknowledged by Tony Blair himself when he returned to Downing Street the day after polling day. He spoke of the challenge facing Britain in confronting “the forces of global competition and technological change”.

The capitalist system has swept aside the traditional ways of life of different countries and has grown to become a world-wide structure. This has happened in large part under Labour and Social Democratic governments. Part of the job of these governments has been to protect property rights, to manage the developing system of exploitation in a smooth and stable way, and to ensure that key services such as education and infrastructures are suitably developed so that within the patterns of national and international trade the economy performs as efficiently as possible.

Always striving for profit the system staggers along, subject to volatile market conditions and moving in an unpredictable way between growth, stagnation and severe slump. It is also subject to the conflicting claims of wages and profits and the need of governments to spend taxes on essential services, dole, pensions and the maintenance of armed forces and police, etc. Within this inherently chaotic system with governments reacting to conditions instead of creating them, short of extreme crisis there is little scope for running it in radically different ways. So its political managers are reduced to arguing out differences which are mostly minor or sham, about how best to spend the money that comes to them, depending on their luck with the economy.

And those who set out to change society through winning political power and reforms have had to accept what was always inevitable, that reformism is a graveyard for such hopes. This happens not because reforms have never made a difference to the way the system works. For anyone wishing to bring about a new and better world, reformism requires a pact with the devil where the forming of a government means being sucked into running the system. This is what has happened to the Labour Party. It has fallen victim to a corrupting process in which the allurements of government power have ruled out any realistic sense of what can be done with such power. As a consequence, the Labour Party not only accepts the capitalist system but it is now fully committed to managing its continued development.

Ritual of voting and blaming
But although the electorate are doing it in decreasing numbers, the ritual of voting one lot in and afterwards blaming them for failure and replacing them with carbon copies, is futile. In part this results from living in a society dominated by vested interests with immense power. This produces a culture of cynicism and blame in which an alienated population feel they have no real powers to bring about change. But the fact remains that in most developed countries governments are in office by consent and this brings responsibility back to the majority of people to do more than just vote and blame. They have to realise where their true interests lie, do their own thinking and act on their own behalf. For this, people have to re-engage with the battle of ideas. Despite the misunderstanding and distortion that confuses political debate, especially about what is meant by socialism, there is a clear contrast between the ideas that support the capitalist system and their political opposite, socialism.
Some of the language used by Conservatives or New Labour politicians may sound different. Conservatives may claim to uphold the best and most enduring values from the past, speak of the virtues and freedoms of economic individualism, and the merits of life in a property-owning democracy. From the mouth of Tony Blair we hear the aim of social equality expressed as “equality of opportunity” where “everyone gets their chance to fulfil their true potential” in a “meritocratic nation”. But in both cases the language expresses a shared support for the capitalist system whilst putting a gloss on an anti-social society that cannot work in the interests of the majority of people.

The reality behind the gloss is class ownership of all the means of producing goods and all resources. It means markets and profit deciding what can be done, a widening gap between rich and poor and the certainty that most people throughout the world will continue to live in poverty. It means the shackling of all the powers of human labour to exploitation and private gain. This is the out-dated world and the ideas that justify it that Labour, Tory and other reformist politicians now hold in common.
These should be contrasted with socialist ideas which emphasise and aim to build upon one human ability which is universal. This is the ability of every person to co-operate with others in a world-wide community of interests. Beyond the world of class divisions and its sub-divisions of colour, religion and nationalism, socialists uphold the ideas of unity, emphasising what we all have in common, and how on a basis of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs, we could release all that is best in the human make-up for the benefit of ourselves as individuals and others.

It is the ideas of capitalism that are dead because they have nowhere to go and represent an ideology that is incapable of being developed as principles for a better world. But the ideas of socialism are rooted in the constant need of all people to live in peace with each other and to co-operate in creating a life of material security. For this reason they will remain indispensable not just for clarifying the nature of problems but for setting out the only way to solve them.
Pieter Lawrence